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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.


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Saturday, July 28, 2007

DR Congo: Chinese company to invest $1 billion in 3 million hectare oil palm plantation

To some it may sound like the ultimate nightmare, others see a great sign of hope: a Chinese company, ZTE International, is to invest US$1 billion in an immense 3 million hectare oil palm plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the aim to produce biofuels. The vast Central-African country formerly known as Zaire is a potential bioenergy 'superpower' which could supply a large part of the world's fuel needs. But it faces some hard choices. Congo is home to the world's second largest undisturbed tropical rainforest, an invaluable hotspot of biodiversity and carbon sink that is increasingly under pressure from (illegal) logging operations. A rush into the biofuel sector could threaten these ecosystems further. On the other hand, if managed carefully, the biofuels opportunity could help lift the Congolese people - who rank amongst the poorest in the world - out of dire poverty and revive the DRC's economy.


Land suitability for oil palm in Congo, compared to Malaysia and Indonesia (click to enlarge)
From 1996 to 2002, the former Belgian colony was at the center of a brutal continental war that took the lives of an estimated 4.5 million Congolese people - the deadliest (and most underreported) conflict since the Second World War. Last year, with the aid of the international community, the country held its first democratic elections since independence in 1960, bringing Joseph Kabila to power. In the east of the country, the war over mineral resources rages on, despite the presence of a large UN peace keeping force.

Congo is only slowly waking up from the nightmare it experienced over the past decades. Everything has to be rebuild, from the state apparatus and the economy to social and health services, from schools and hospitals to roads and railroads. In this immense country the size of Western Europe there are only 300 kilometres of paved roads...

But things are changing fast in the nation of 60 million. The relative macro-economic and political stability brought about by the new government is attracting investors who spot countless business opportunities. The economy is growing at a rate of 6 to 7 per cent annually, inflation is under control, attractive investment rules are in place and millions are looking for a job that will take them out of the informal economy and out of poverty (80% of Congolese live on less than a dollar per day). But here too, there is a huge need for reconstruction and governance: the banking sector is in ruins, transport infrastructures and ports need to be rebuild and corruption is rampant.


Land suitability for sugarcane in Congo, compared to Brazil (click to enlarge)
When it comes to biofuels, the Congolese are gradually beginning to understand the worldchanging prospect that in a post-oil era, their country, together with Brazil, will largely determine the energy security of the world. The DRC's new government has just recently established an interministerial commission on biofuels to assess the complex opportunities and the many risks of this future. Policy work is urgently needed. The EU is thinking of assisting the country with impact and sustainability analyses.

Meanwhile, media in Kinshasa have become extatic and dithyrambic on hearing the news of the Chinese biofuels investment, with headlines boasting that Congo will become the new 'Saudi Arabia of the tropics'. They see the return of foreign investors and their immediate interest in the bioenergy sector as a sign of positive change, a symbol of the fact that the war is over and that stability and prosperity are about to arrive. Others are far more critical and point to the great risks the sector represents to Congo's environment.

An analyst writing in Kinshasa's Le Potentiel (*French) sums up the reasons as to why he thinks biofuels are the way forward for the DRC:
The revival of our economy largely depends on access to energy and in particular to petroleum products. One of the largest obstacles to the development of our industrial and agricultural sectors has always been the lack of energy. During the past 3 decades the totality of petroleum products has been imported, draining our country's treasury and weakening its trade balance. The future of our economy is inconceivable without the national production of biofuels, in particular biodiesel.
The author then sketches two scenarios in an oil-dependent future in which prices for petroleum are as high as today, and concludes that Congo better invest in biofuels rightaway, which allows for local control over energy resources, price stability and energy security.
1. Either supplies of petroleum products can no longer be guaranteed by the State with a collapse of all economic developments as a consequence, which will further increase and generalise poverty: 80% of the Congolese people live on less than a dollar a day.
2. Or demand for oil can be met somehow with the support of the private sector, and a certain degree of industrial and agricultural progress can be expected, but the country would suffocate financially, see its debts explode and be devoid of means to invest in its enormous agricultural potential and in the mining sector.
No matter which scenario is most likely, no decision maker can be blind to the potential for renewables and biofuels. Today, the production of biofuels is the path our country must undeniably take in order to prevent the further drainage of our treasury resulting from oil imports.
When it comes to the technical biofuels potential of Congo, we can be brief: the country has Africa's largest base of potential arable land, some 167 million hectares of non-forest land (roughly as much as all countries of Western Europe combined), it has the world's largest expanse of agro-ecologically highly suitable land for crops like sugarcane and oil palm (see maps), besides having a vast potential for most other tropical (energy) crops such as soybeans, sorghum, cassava, grasses and energy trees. Currently, the country has around 4.7% of its arable land base under cultivation:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Projections show that, even with a rapidly growing population (currently growing at 3% annually), the country has the technical potential to both supply its own population and that of Central-Africa as a whole with food, fuel and fiber, and to produce an excess in the form of bioenergy that could replace up to a tenth of the world's oil demand by 2030, without endangering the rainforest or the food security of people. Obviously, such technical assessments say nothing about the reality on the ground (e.g. Congo currently is a net food importer). And the question as to whether this vast potential will be exploited in a sustainable and socially acceptable way is a matter of governance, policy, trade rules, development assistance, investment approaches and business practises.


Meeting local demand first
The Chinese project will be implemented in the Equateur and Bandundu provinces, in the Province Orientale and in part of West-Kasaï.

In first instance the Chinese company will satisfy local demand for oil palm. Despite its vast potential, Congo currently imports a relatively small quantity of 15,000 tonnes per year, mainly due to the breakdown of logistical chains that are supposed to bring the product from the hinterland to the capital. Current oil palm production stands at around 240,000 tonnes, with demand expected to grow to 465,000 tonnes in 2010 and 540,000 tonnes in 2015.

When the palms for the 3 million hectares are planted this and next year, and reach full maturity 5 years later (in 2013) the plantations would yield around 12 million tonnes of oil (at 4 tonnes per hectare), easily meeting local demand. The excess of around 11.5 million tonnes would be used for the production of biofuels (or for human consumption, depending on the market situation and the reality of peak oil, which should become apparent by that time).

Export potential
According to the latest IEA figures (2004) Congo consumes around 390,000 tonnes of gasoline and diesel per year, an equivalent of around 2.3 million barrels annually or 6,400 bpd. Total oil products demand stands at 8,200 bpd. In other words, this vast country of 60 million inhabitants consumes in a year what the U.S. consumes in less than one minute... Estimating demand for oil products in Congo to grow at around 5 per cent per annum, by 2013, the country would require approximately 12,702 bpd. Such an amount of oil equivalent energy can be obtained from around 193,000 tonnes of palm oil. Substracting this from the 11.5 million tonnes means that around 11.3 million tonnes are available for exports.

In short, the Chinese project alone could meet rapidly growing local demand for palm oil, replace all of Congo's petroleum products with locally produced biofuels, and result in an excess of 11.3 million tonnes of palm oil or 67.8 million barrels of oil equivalent biofuels per year for export. This comes down to 186,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, roughly the output of an oil exporting country like Bahrain. This single Chinese project could export enough the meet all the oil needs of a highly developed country like New Zealand or Ireland.

Cutting bunches of palm fruit at the plantations of Busira Lomami, eastern Congo.

Note that palm plantations yield a tremendous amount of biomass, currently not used for the production of liquid biofuels. The 4 tonnes of oil that are expected from an average hectare of trees represents a fraction of the total stream of biomass residues - fronds, trunks, fruit press cakes, fibers, empty fruit bunches, kernel shells and kernel meal, and palm oil mill effluent -, which contains up to three times more energy than the palm oil and the palm kernel oil produced by a mill.

Technically speaking, if second generation biofuel production technologies that can tap into these large biomass residue flows become viable, the liquid fuel output of a hectare of oil palm trees could be doubled. Alternatively, the biomass obtained from palm processing activities can already be used for the production of green electricity and biogas with currently existing technologies. It will be interesting to see how ZTE International integrates these new forms of exploiting oil palm residues.

Finally, it is not clear whether the Chinese project involves planting high-yield clonal varieties that have been developed over the past few years. In 2003, a Malaysian company succeeded in creating a clone that yields up to 30% more oil.

Social and environmental sustainability
This type of mega-projects presents an obvious threat to the Congo basin rainforest that is already under pressure from (illegal) logging. In all countries with a large palm oil sector - Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Colombia - the establishment of industrial-scale plantations has gone at the expense of forests. Recent attempts to make the sector more sustainable - through bodies like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - are encouraging, but the simple fact remains that forests go when palm oil arrives.

Oil palms are perennial crops that can only be exploited profitably in monocultural systems. Once they are planted, they are kept in place for 25 years after which they are replaced, often with higher yielding varieties. Monocultures imply the use of fertilizers and pesticides even though organic farming techniques are being researched. Attempts at integrating oil palm on a commercial scale in small farms that grow a diversity of crops are largely unsuccessful. There is an unbridgeable gap between traditional, cottage palm oil production and industrial-scale exploitation based on vast plantations. There is no middle ground.

Large palm oil projects have complex social consequences that can be interpreted as positive or negative, depending on which perspective one is inclined to take. In many cases, smallholders see the sector as their best shot at staying out of poverty, but the truth is that they often don't have any other economic opportunity available. In a country like Indonesia, up to 50% of all palm fruit producers are small farmers with less than 5 hectares, the rest is made up of estates owned by industrial groups. The expansion of palm plantations for biofuels is hailed by several developing country governments as a historic chance to bring jobs to millions of unemployed rural people and small farmers.

Moreover, the palm oil industry 'opens up' remote and often marginal rural areas by bringing new infrastructures (roads, canals, energy and irrigation infrastructures) and by creating new markets and access to new products. This often radically changes the local economy and commerce. It is not certain whether these impacts are as beneficial as the oil palm sector often wants us to believe, because they clearly increase pressures on the local environment.

In any case, behind this classic logic that depicts the palm sector as largely beneficial from a social and economic perspective, hides a less pleasant tradition: that of putting local communities in front of a choice they might not want to make. This choice is often as banal as the option of becoming palm oil farmers and turning land into plantations, or to face political and economic marginality and often outright violence. There are numerous cases of indigenous people being forcibly displaced to make way for palm estates.

A local newspaper in Kinshasa is worried that in the future certain forest-dwelling populations might be forced out of their environment because of the expansion of palm plantations. It cites an example which indicates that this has already happened in the context of logging operations. And as we know, palm oil often moves in after loggers have paved the way:
The Mbuti (Efe) pygmees who live in the Ituri forest have been removed from their land since the 1990s and have been forced to give up their traditional livelihoods, so that European and Malaysian forestry companies could take their place. Since the middle of 2006, the construction of new roads and tracks through their forest has led to the destruction of the natural habitat of the Efe who have become disoriented and whose communities have disintegrated.
International perspectives and support
In a country like Congo, which once used to be the world's second largest palm oil producer (in the 1960s), the extensive experience and history with palm production in other tropical countries can be used as the basis for the creation of robust policies that must ensure socially acceptable forms of production. But Congo comes out of a situation of total state collapse, so it will need all the help it can get to devise strong governance structures and strategies. If it succeeds in taking a pragmatic and wise set of policies, the country's potential for biofuel production might indeed bring prosperity to those who need it most.

Palm oil does not necessarily have to be environmentally and socially destructive. Some organisations have been calling for a complete 'moratorium' on biofuels made from palm oil, but this may not be the smartest approach towards more sustainability. Earlier, we referred to an interesting analysis which showed that a hypothetical import ban by the West on fuels made from the most productive energy crop would be far more disastrous for the environment than stimulating the production of eco-friendlier palm oil, even if it means expanding the sector.

The main reasons:

(1) palm oil employs millions of small farmers; taking away their livelihoods without providing realistic alternatives results in far more environmental destruction (poverty and correlated high fertility rates are the key drivers of deforestation and environmental degradation);

(2) Asian demand is growing rapidly and only a sustainability offensive launched by the EU or by an international body can bring a counter-weight; in order to kickstart this drive towards eco-friendlier production, more investments are needed in the sector, not less. Palm oil producers might decide to export to a country like China, where sustainability criteria for imported oil are non-existent and where demand is insatiable; an international effort is needed to create a consensus on sustainable production and the EU can preventively invest in sustanability policies and frameworks for the sector in a country like Congo;

(3) in the specific case of Congo, palm oil can bring in much needed billions that will be required for the reconstruction of the state, for economic development and for poverty alleviation on a vast scale; palm oil may seem like a quick-fix, but in fact, if the vast rural populations of Congo are not soon helped economically and provided with formal employment, the pressures they exert on the environment will be enormous. The example of Malaysia shows that a single sector like palm oil can contribute substantially to the health of the economy as a whole;

(4) further, and related to the potential for economic growth: Congo faces a demographic explosion that can only be slowed down by fast economic growth, and growth the effects of which can be felt by rural people. Poverty and fertility rates are strictly correlated; if palm oil can contribute to significantly increasing the incomes of millions of Congolese farmers, then there would be indirect demographic effects. UN projections show that, for Congo, the difference between a low population growth scenario and a medium and high one means the difference between a population of 160 million or 210 million in 2050. Palm oil can help work towards the low scenario, which would be beneficial for the people and the environment at large;

(5) finally, in a best-case scenario, the establishment of a palm oil sector in Congo will bring infrastructures and access to new markets and products for rural populations. This will allow them, for the first time, to rely on agricultural production techniques that require less land and yield more. Access to modern inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, quality seeds, etc) are absolutely primordial. Currently, subsistence agriculture in the African country is highly unsustainable and requires a constant expansion of land; modest modernisation could turn this situation around. Both the material infrastructures and the funds to allow such interventions could come from an export-driven palm oil sector. Access to new markets for agricultural products would boost rural incomes and reduce poverty - the key driver in environmental destruction. 70 per cent of the DRC's population currently makes a living in agriculture.

Notwithstanding these general observations, the developed world has an obligation to assist a country like Congo with devising policy frameworks and governance structures that limit the negative environmental impacts of the palm oil sector. This would be smarter than a simple ban on palm oil products.

Moreover, the EU and other biofuel importing countries will have to devise a subtle set of social and environmental sustainability criteria that allow a country like Congo to produce and export biofuels, but that encourages it to invest radically in sustainability. Such criteria can not become a new set of trade barriers; farm subsidies in Europe and the U.S. as well as tariffs and non-tariff barriers are already having disastrously negative consequences for the developing world - so much so that a country like Congo is actually a net food importer, whereas technically it should be a major agricultural producer and exporter. Sustainability criteria must go hand in hand with trade reform.

Avoided deforestation
At the same time, Congo is analysing whether a concept like 'avoided deforestation' would work to its advantage. This concept is based on the idea that developing countries should be compensated in one form or another to preserve their rainforests, which are valuable carbon sinks. If the carbon sequestered and cycled in these forests receives a value that can be converted into cash (e.g. via international carbon markets), countries like Congo would have a major incentive to reduce deforestation. The need for palm oil plantations which require deforestation would disappear because a viable alternative presents itself under the form of carbon trading.

The way in which such 'avoided deforestation' schemes will be implemented is currently being researched, but they are quite promising. On the other hand, they also represent risks in that they are top-down schemes that do not directly and automatically benefit the people on the ground who make a living from forests and from deforestation, such as the many small farmers whose susbsistence farming techniques force them to slash and burn their way through forest. Moreover, it is not clear what the effect of high oil prices would be on the feasibility of avoided deforestation schemes. If 'peak oil' becomes real and prices skyrocket, it might be more attractive for forest-rich developing countries to produce biofuels, which bring energy security in a very tangible form. Finally, biofuel production brings incomes to rural populations in a direct and straightforward way, because they are at the basis of the production scheme.

In short, biofuels follow a 'bottom-up' pathway partly controlled by small farmers (certainly in the case of palm oil), whereas avoided deforestation represents a 'top-down' scheme of which it is not sure that the funds, managed by bureaucrats and states, will ever reach the people who are entitled to them.

China's new plantation rules
So far, Congo's immeasurable wealth in natural resources has been a cause of recurring colonial and postcolonial conflicts. The question is whether the new government will succeed in turning this dark history around. Some think China will play a decisive role in determining the outcome. The country's growing presence in Africa and in Congo can be seen as a stabilizing force, while others perceive it as a new round of colonialism.

In this context, environmentalists have accused the PRC of destroying the world's remaining tropical forests to fuel its own needs for wood and agricultural products. The country is clearly sensitive to the critiques, so much so that it recently unveiled a draft sustainable forestry handbook for Chinese companies operating overseas.

The guidelines call for a ban on illegal logging and clearing of natural forests for plantations. The manual, which was announced last year, has been distributed to China's 31 provinces, its forestry department, and various industry groups, and will soon go out to officials in 333 cities and 2,862 counties, according to a statement posted on the Forestry Ministry Web site.
[The manual] positively guides and standardizes Chinese companies' sustainable forestry activities overseas, promotes the sustainable development of forestry in those countries (and) protects the international image of our government being responsible - Deputy Forestry Minister Li Yucai said in a statement
It remains to be seen how big the gap will be between these guidelines and the actual practises on the ground. The vast Chinese-owned plantation in Congo will offer an interesting case study in this respect. The good thing is that environmentalists now have a quasi-legal basis with which to hold Chinese investors in the forestry and plantation sector in the tropics, accountable.

Image courtesy of Gazopalm.

References:
Le Potentiel (via AllAfrica): Congo-Kinshasa: Biocarburant - La RDC doit faire le choix entre le palmier elaeis et le jatropha curcas - July 10, 2007 (alternative location, here at Congoforum).

La Conscience (Kinshasa) (via Congoforum): La RD Congo est potentiellement capable de devenir l'un des plus grands producteurs du monde - July 05, 2007.

Biopact: Fuel shortages in the heart of Africa - biofuels to the rescue? - April 17, 2007.

Biopact: New Congo government identifies bioenergy as priority for industrialisation - May 03, 2007

Mongabay: China calls for sustainable logging by Chinese firms overseas - July 11, 2007.


Article continues

Scientists propose new crop sequencing strategies to adapt to variable climate

Around the world, extreme climatic conditions are forcing farmers to rethink current cropping system strategies. To maximize crop production in the face of variable temperatures and precipitation, scientists say farmers may want to adopt a system in which crop sequencing decisions are based upon weather patterns and management goals each year. However, before making the change to a more adaptable cropping systems strategy, researchers say it's important to understand how short-term crop sequencing decisions affect key agronomic and environmental attributes.

From 2002-2005, a team of researchers at the USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan, North Dakota, investigated crop sequencing effects of 10 crops in a region known for its variable climate. The researchers report their findings as a series of six papers in the July-August 2007 issue of Agronomy Journal (overview and presentation).

The motivation for the research are the multiple challenges faced by global agriculture in the future:
Future trends in population growth, energy use, climate change, and globalization will challenge agriculturists to develop innovative production systems that are highly productive and environmentally sound. Furthermore, future agricultural production systems must possess an inherent capacity to adapt to change to be sustainable. Given this context, adoption of dynamic cropping systems is proposed to meet multiple agronomic and environmental objectives through the enhancement of management adaptability to externalities.
Because crop performance is greatly influenced by the sequence in which crops are grown, USDA researchers set out to explore the short-term effects of sequencing a variety of different crops grown throughout the Great Plains.
Dynamic cropping systems are a form of agricultural production that relies on an annual strategy to optimize the outcome of (i) production, (ii) economic, and (iii) resource conservation goals using ecologically-based management principles. Dynamic cropping systems are inherently complex, possessing larger crop portfolios and greater crop diversity and sequencing flexibility as compared with monoculture and fixed-sequence cropping systems. Greater crop diversity and sequencing flexibility within dynamic cropping systems may result in reduced weed and disease infestations, greater nutrient- and precipitation-use efficiency, decreased requirements of exogenous inputs, and lower production risk.
Over a three-year period, the scientists used a unique crop by crop-residue matrix design to evaluate the effects of 100 crop sequences on crop production, plant diseases, soil residue coverage, and soil water depletion. The six symposium papers presented by the USDA researchers highlight interesting findings on the following issues:
  • crops and crop sequences that optimize precipitation-use efficiency for maximum productivity
  • ways to decrease production risks from plant diseases in diverse cropping systems
  • how to maintain an amount of crop residue under no-till to optimize agronomic benefits while minimizing negative effects
  • how to most effectively sequence crops in semiarid environments while maximizing use of available soil water
  • the value of understanding crop sequencing effects for achieving agroecosystem sustainability
While the dynamic cropping system studies centered at the USDA-ARS Northern Plains Research Laboratory have helped scientists to better understand the short-term effects of crop sequencing, researchers say there is a lot to learn about how different crop sequences affect the many factors that influence agronomic and environmental outcomes within cropping systems:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Crop sequence effects on diseases
Crop sequence is an important management practice that may lower the risk for leaf spot diseases of spring wheat. Field research was conducted near Mandan, to determine the impact of crop sequences on leaf spot diseases of hard red spring wheat early in the growing season. Spring wheat was evaluated for disease severity following crop sequence combinations of 10 crops: buckwheat, canola, chickpea, corn, dry pea, grain sorghum, lentil, oil seed sunflower, proso millet, and hard red spring wheat.

The frequency of isolation following alternative crops was generally lower compared with spring wheat following wheat. Leaf spot diseases on spring wheat were impacted by crop sequencing. Spring wheat following crop sequences with alternative crops for 1 or 2 yr had lower levels of disease severity compared with a continuous spring wheat treatment early in the growing season. Disease severity was apparently not related to the percentage of crop residue coverage on the soil surface associated with various crop sequence combinations. New alternative crops preceding spring wheat reduce levels of leaf spot diseases.


Crop residue coverage of soils in no-till systems
Field research was conducted to determine the influence of crop and crop sequencing on crop residue coverage of soil with 10 crops: buckwheat, canola, chickpea, corn, dry pea, grain sorghum, lentil, oil seed sunflower, proso millet, and hard red spring wheat. Crop residue coverage of the soil surface was measured with a transect technique at the time of seeding spring wheat.

Crop residue coverage varied and was more clearly associated with the second-year crop than with the first-year crop of a 2-yr crop sequence. Crop sequences composed of spring wheat, proso millet, and grain sorghum had higher crop residue coverage compared with sequences composed of the other crops. When these three crops and three crops that provide lower crop residue coverage of soil the subsequent year (lentil, chickpea, and sunflower) were analyzed as a subset to compare various sequences of crops providing a range of residue coverage, for example, lower (first yr)/lower (second yr), the surface residue coverage ranged from 65% for the lower/lower combination to 93% for the higher/higher combination in 2004 and from 56 to 94% in 2005, respectively.

A producer operating on more fragile soil and concerned about reducing soil erosion hazards would be advised to grow crops that provide higher residue coverage in the year before crops that provide lower residue coverage.


Soil water depletion and recharge under dynamic cropping systems

Dynamic cropping systems principles require that farmers consider climatic, market, and ecological factors on an annual basis in making crop choices. Objectives of this research were to determine variability of seasonal soil water depletion (SWD) and spring soil water recharge (SWR) among crops and to apply results to dynamic cropping systems practice.

A 10-species crop sequence project was conducted under no-tillage on silt loam Haplustoll soils in North Dakota. Mid-May to mid-September SWD and following April SWR were determined from 2002 to 2005 by neutron moisture meter to the 1.8-m depth.

Crops studied and average SWD amounts (centimeters) were: sunflower, 13.5; corn, 12.6; sorghum, 11.0; spring wheat, 10.6; canola, 10.0; millet, 9.6; buckwheat, 9.4; chickpea , 8.5; lentil, 8.1; and dry pea, 5.0, with highest and lowest being 29 and 11% of average May soil water, 46 cm.

Because the period of the experiment was relatively dry, recharge was less than depletion. Spring soil water was 10 cm greater following pea than following sunflower. Ranking of crops for water storage roughly followed reverse SWD rank, with several exceptions, notably wheat, which had greater water from snow capture. Lower soil water following crops such as sunflower and corn was linked to negative crop sequential effects in this project.

Choosing to seed a lower water-using crop in the spring after the occurrence of below-average SWR on land that had a higher water-using crop the previous season illustrates an application of information reported along with the principles of dynamic cropping systems.


Crop sequences and sustainability
Producers need to know how to sequence crops to develop sustainable dynamic cropping systems that take advantage of inherent internal resources, such as crop synergism, nutrient cycling, and soil water, and capitalize on external resources, such as weather, markets, and government programs.

The objective of this research was to determine influences of previous crop and crop residues (crop sequence) on relative seed and residue yield and precipitation-use efficiency (PUE) for the no-till production of buckwheat, canola, chickpea, corn, dry pea, grain sorghum, lentil, proso millet, sunflower, and spring wheat grown in the northern Great Plains.

Relative seed yield in 2003 for eight of the 10 crops resulted in synergistic effects when the previous crop was dry pea or lentil, compared with each crop grown on its own residue. Buckwheat, corn, and sunflower residues were antagonistic to chickpea relative seed yield. In 2004, highest relative seed yield for eight of the 10 crops occurred when dry pea was the previous crop. Relative residue yield followed a pattern similar to relative seed yield.

The PUE overall means fluctuated for seven of the 10 crops both years, but those of dry pea, sunflower, and spring wheat remained somewhat constant, suggesting these crops may have mechanisms for consistent PUE and were not as dependent on growing season precipitation distribution as the other seven crops.

Sustainable cropping systems in the northern Great Plains will approach an optimal scheme of crop sequencing by taking advantage of synergisms and avoiding antagonisms that occur among crops and previous crop residues.


These short-term research efforts can help identify crop sequence 'synergisms' and 'antagonisms' thereby providing the necessary foundation for developing strategies to sequence crops over a longer period of time, the researchers write.

The research team at the USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory is now actively working to translate their research findings for use by agriculturists through an update of the Crop Sequence Calculator, an interactive computer program designed to assess crop sequencing options for optimizing economic, agronomic, and environmental goals within dryland cropping systems.

Photo: satellite image of circular crop fields and crop rotations in Haskell County, Kansas in late June 2001. Healthy, growing crops are green. Corn would be growing into leafy stalks by then. Sorghum, which resembles corn, grows more slowly and would smaller at that time and therefore, paler. Wheat is a brilliant gold as harvest occurs in June. Fields of brown have been recently harvested and plowed under or lie fallow for the year.

References:
J. D. Hansona, M. A. Liebiga, S. D. Merrilla, D. L. Tanakaa, J. M. Krupinskya and D. E. Stott, "Dynamic Cropping Systems. Increasing Adaptability Amid an Uncertain Future", Agron J, 99:939-943 (2007); DOI: 10.2134/agronj2006.0133

Joseph M. Krupinskya, Steven D. Merrilla, Donald L. Tanakaa, Mark A. Liebiga, Michael T. Laresb and Jonathan D. Hansona, "Crop Residue Coverage of Soil Influenced by Crop Sequence in a No-Till System", Agron J, 99:921-930 (2007); DOI: 10.2134/agronj2006.0129

M. A. Liebig, D. L. Tanaka, J. M. Krupinsky, S. D. Merrill and J. D. Hanson, "Dynamic Cropping Systems. Contributions to Improve Agroecosystem Sustainability", Agron J, 99:899-903 (2007); DOI: 10.2134/agronj2006.0131

Joseph M. Krupinskya, Donald L. Tanakaa, Steven D. Merrilla, Mark A. Liebiga, Michael T. Laresb and Jonathan D. Hanson, "Crop Sequence Effects on Leaf Spot Diseases of No-Till Spring Wheat", Agron J, 99:912-920 (2007); DOI: 10.2134/agronj2006.0130

Stephen D. Merrill, Donald L. Tanaka, Joseph M. Krupinsky, Mark A. Liebig and Jonathan D. Hanson, "Soil Water Depletion and Recharge under Ten Crop Species and Applications to the Principles of Dynamic Cropping Systems", Agron J, 99:931-938 (2007); DOI: 10.2134/agronj2006.0134

D. L. Tanaka, J. M. Krupinsky, S. D. Merrill, M. A. Liebig and J. D. Hanson, "Dynamic Cropping Systems for Sustainable Crop Production in the Northern Great Plains", Agron J, 99:904-911 (2007); DOI: 10.2134/agronj2006.0132

Eurekalert: Wild weather forces farmers to adapt - July 28, 2007.



Article continues

Friday, July 27, 2007

Scientists develop microbial fuel cell that converts cellulose into electricity by pairing bacteria

Scientists from the Penn State University have found a way to develop a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that produces electricity from cellulose. No currently known bacteria that allow termites and cows to digest cellulose can power a microbial fuel cell, and those bacteria that can produce electrical current cannot eat cellulose. But by carefully pairing two different bacteria the researchers succeeded in creating a fuel cell that consumes cellulose - the biosphere's most abundant organic compound - and converts it into renewable electricity.

They report the results of their study in a open access article in a recent issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

John M. Regan, assistant professor of environmental engineering, said they had got microbial fuel cells to work with all kinds of biodegradable substances including glucose, wastewater and other organic wastes. But converting cellulose is trickier. There is no known microbe that can degrade cellulose and reduce the anode.

The researchers overcame this by putting together a microbe that can degrade and ferment cellulose and an anode-reducing bacterium that can live off the fermentation products.

Microbial fuel cells work through the action of bacteria that can pass electrons to an anode. The electrons flow from the anode through a wire to the cathode, producing an electric current. In the process, the bacteria consume organic matter in the water or sediment. More technically, the Penn State team describes MFCs as follows:
Using electrochemically active microorganisms as biocatalysts, microbial fuel cells are bioelectrochemical reactors that convert organic material directly into electricity. Unlike chemical or enzyme-based fuel cells, which are tailored to oxidize specific electron donors, MFCs have tremendous electron donor versatility. This includes simple substrates such as glucose, acetate, and lactate; complex substrates such as municipal and industrial wastewaters ; and even steam-exploded corn stover hydrolysate. MFCs can also be configured to produce hydrogen instead of electricity using an anaerobic cathode and a small applied voltage to reduce protons in the cathode chamber.
The interesting aspect of the new research is that the MFC works on cellulose, the material that holds so much potential for the production of renewable energy, but that is difficult to work with. Plants produce cellulose to use as their cell walls and to provide rigidity to their structure. Along with lignin and hemicellulose, they make up huge amounts of the biomass produced by plants. Some animals, ruminants and termites for example, can break down cellulose with the aid of bacteria that live in their digestive tract. Humans and most vertebrates derive little nutrition from cellulose.

The researchers, who include Regan, Thomas E. Ward, research associate and Zhiyong Ren, graduate student, looked at Clostridium cellulolyticum, a bacterium that ferments cellulose via its cellulase enzymes, andGeobacter sulfurreducens, an electroactive bacterium:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Both are anaerobic, living in places where no free oxygen exists. This fermenter produces acetate, ethanol and hydrogen. The electroactive bacteria consumed some of the acetate and ethanol.

"We thought that maybe we did not need a binary setup, maybe uncharacterized bacterial consortia would work" says Regan. "It worked, but not as well as the two specifically paired bacteria."

One problem with anaerobic bacteria - and the reason the researchers looked into an uncharacterized mixture of bacteria - is that currently the most efficient microbial fuel cells use an air cathode. Unfortunately, it is impossible to have an air cathode without some oxygen leaking into the reaction chamber, killing strictly anaerobic bacteria and reducing output. "We tried an aerobic cathode with the binary culture and it will not work," says Regan.

The researchers then settled on a two-chamber fuel cell that produced a maximum of 150 milliwatts per square meter. "We achieved a low power density because of the two chamber system," says Regan. "Current fuel cell designs produce about ten times that."

Currently the researchers are using pure, processed cellulose without any hemicellulose or lignin. They are just beginning to look at other cellulose products so the fuel cells can operate on less manufactured feedstock.

As a proof of concept, the researchers are happy with their results, but they would like to see the power density increase. One approach would be to find a community of bacteria that could tolerate small amounts of oxygen because some of the bacteria use up the oxygen before it reached the anaerobic bacteria. Another approach would be to improve the design of the oxygenless fuel cell.

Image: Structure of the cellulase enzyme Cel9G with which the bacterium Clostridium cellulolyticum breaks down cellulose. Credit: Institut de Biologie et de Chimie des Protéines.

References
Zhiyong Ren, Thomas E. Ward, and John M. Regan, "Electricity Production from Cellulose in a Microbial Fuel Cell Using a Defined Binary Culture", Environ. Sci. Technol., 41 (13), 4781 -4786, 2007. DOI: 10.1021/es070577h S0013-936X(07)00577-9, Web Release Date: June 6, 2007.

Eurekalert: Two bacteria better than one in cellulose-fed fuel cell - July 27, 2007.



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New center wins £1.1 million in funding for CCS research - towards carbon negative energy

Imagine you could develop an energy system that delivers electricity while at the same time taking historic carbon dioxide - the main culprit of climate change - out of the atmosphere. With such a carbon-negative energy system, you would effectively be 'cleaning up the past', not only the future. The electricity generated from such a concept could be used to power electric vehicles, homes and industry.

Such so-called 'Bioenergy with Carbon Storage' (BECS) systems become possible when biomass fuels (solid, gaseous or liquid) are burned in power plants that are integrated with a carbon capture and storage (CCS) system. The primary energy source is carbon-neutral because it consists of plants that take CO2 out of the atmosphere as they grow. When before, during or after the combustion of the biomass, its carbon dioxide is captured and then stored in suitable sites, the electricity generated becomes carbon-negative.

Scientists have looked at this BECS concept as one of the few feasible geo-engineering options to mitigate dangerous climate change on a large scale and in a safe manner that allows societies to use energy while taking historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. The system is seen as a 'geo-engineering' technique because it involves the establishment large plantations of carbon capturing energy crops at strategic sites (earlier post).

Crucial to make the BECS concept work is the carbon capture and storage phase. Both steps are currently being tested and research has been speeding up with the idea to apply CCS to power plants that burn fossil fuels (in which case the system would still be slightly carbon-positive). One of the key risks associated with CSS is the potential for leakage: the carbon dioxide that will be stored in sites such as saline aquifers or deep coal seams could escape. Now if this were to happen in a CCS system that relies on fossil fuels, the entire concept would become unviable because the leaking CO2 gas would contribute to climate change. But if biofuels were to be used, leakage would be no problem, since there would be no net contribution. In short, as Biopact's Laurens Rademakers found, the use of biomass in CCS systems could be the safest way forward for the technology.

Other carbon storage techniques resulting in carbon-negative bioenergy are based on the sequestration of biochar in agricultural soils, or on processes that lock carbon dioxide up in useful products.

It is within this context that Biopact tracks the latest developments in CCS-research. Good news comes from the University of Nottingham, where Dr Mercedes Maroto-Valer, Associate Professor and Reader in Energy Technology, has won £1.1 million (€1.6/US$2.2 million) for a new centre that is set to play a crucial role in the development of CCS technologies.
The way we will approach this problem is unique. The CICCS will bring together engineers, mathematicians, bioscientists, geographers, geologists and end-users in a 'hot-house' environment that encourages creative problem-solving. - Dr Maroto-Valer, University of Nottingham, School of Chemical and Environmental Engineering
The Centre for Innovation in Carbon Capture and Storage (CICCS) — due to open in October 2007 — will develop novel technologies to trap and store greenhouse gases permanently and safely, so they are not released into the atmosphere.

One of the technologies that the Centre will work on uses a natural process in conjunction with silicate-based rocks such as serpentine. When put in a reactor and under a chemical reaction, CO2 gets locked in by the rocks permanently. The end-product is a mineral such as magnesite, which can be used as aggregates for road-building or shaped into bricks for construction. If applied to a CO2 stream from biomass, we could be building houses that store CO2 emissions from the past:
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The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), through the Challenging Engineering initiative, has just announced the five-year funding package for CICCS, with a view to it becoming a world leader in the development of novel processes for carbon capture and storage and establishing partnerships with major international industries and research centres:

Dr Maroto-Valer who will be the director of the new center said: “The novel technologies developed at the Centre will enable the UK to meet its targets for the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and thus help the UK to play its part in global efforts to tackle climate change.”

CO2 is the main culprit in global warming — and in the UK almost a third of these emissions come from power stations. The storage method to be developed at CICCS could cut such CO2 releases to almost zero in a safe and reliable manner.

The Centre will work on research at the interface of science and engineering, industry and international cooperation in order to accelerate technological innovation in the field and lead to a wider deployment of carbon capture and storage. The Centre will also have a strong programme of knowledge transfer and training with a range of opportunities for industrial engagement.

The Centre will promote interdisciplinary activity to bring groundbreaking ideas from basic science and develop them into new products, processes and services, as well as consider public acceptability issues.

Within the Centre a new generation of potential academic, industrial and government leaders in carbon capture and storage will be trained with a broad and interdisciplinary set of skills suitable for their future careers in industry, research or government.

Locking carbon dioxide into a useful product
One of the technologies that the Centre will work on uses a natural process in conjunction with silicate-based rocks such as serpentine, which is found in large enough quantities, and in the right places, to store all the CO2 produced by the combustion of the entire world's known fossil fuel reserves.

The CO2 extracted from burning coal is put into a reactor with the rocks and through a chemical reaction. The serpentine binds the carbon dioxide to itself, 'locking it in' permanently. This reaction does occur in nature — only far more slowly, taking place over eons of time.

Once the process is fully developed, it is estimated that the locking of CO2 will take place within minutes.

The end product is a mineral such as magnesite, which can be used as aggregates for road-building or shaped into bricks for construction. Carbon dioxide makes up 40 per cent of its weight and it would take 1,500 times more space to store the same amount in gas form.

Compared to other proposed processes for carbon storage, such as burying carbon under the sea, once the CO2 is locked inside the rock by the CICCS process, it is contained for good and cannot go back to its previous state. This is of paramount importance as ensuring the permanent storage of the CO2 has been the most controversial issue in carbon storage.

Moreover, the end result is a commercial product. Fossil fuel power plants could utilise the new process by adding a reactor to their emissions treatment system, allowing CO2 to be turned into a useful building material. The Centre's ultimate goal will be to sign collaborative agreements with power and construction companies to move forward with commercialisation of the technology.


A spokesperson for the EPSRC said: “Established in response to recommendations in the 2004 international review of engineering research in the UK, Challenging Engineering aims to encourage young researchers to develop and lead adventurous projects.

“It seeks to identify and support outstanding researchers at an early stage of their career, to achieve their potential faster through training in creativity and leadership, linking with industry, developing collaborative networks and routes to better exploitation.

“The competition required candidates to present their project proposals creatively and offered the opportunity to demonstrate their ability not only to lead far-reaching research, but also to communicate its importance to the wider world. The EPSRC makes around seven Challenging Engineering awards annually, with a total commitment of £16.3M to date.”


The processes developed by the Centre will also be attractive to oil producers, chemical manufacturers and other energy-intensive industries that have a role to play in helping the UK to meet its 2050 target of 60% reduction below 1990 levels.


The new Centre will without a doubt develop innovative ways to capture and store carbon dioxide. The first example - binding CO2 to rocks to yield a useful product - could be applied to any CO2 stream, including those coming from the combustion of solid, gaseous or liquid biofuels. This means we could soon be building our houses with bricks that contain CO2 from the past...


References:
The University of Nottingham: Nottingham centre to help UK to meet its carbon targets - July 27, 2007.

Biopact: Abrupt Climate Change and geo-engineering the planet with carbon-negative bioenergy - December 21, 2006

Biopact: Pre-combustion CO2 capture from biogas - the way forward? - March 31, 2007

Biopact: Carbon sequestration in deep coal seams feasible, but with risks - June 28, 2007

Biopact: Research warns 'dangerous climate change' may be imminent - carbon negative bioenergy now - May 31, 2007

Biopact: Report: clean coal and CCS 'feasible' in the UK - towards carbon negative energy? - May 15, 2007

EurActiv: 'Carbon-capture trials safest way forward' - Laurens Rademakers, Biopact - April 3, 2007.


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Progress Energy Florida to buy electricity from largest biomass gasification plant

As part of its ongoing growth in renewable energy and developing technologies, Progress Energy Florida (PEF) has signed a long-term contract to purchase electricity generated by what will be the largest waste-wood biomass plant in the U.S. In the past year, Progress Energy has signed contracts to add more than 200 megawatts of renewable energy to its system.

Biomass Gas & Electric
(BG&E), based in Atlanta, Ga., plans to build a power plant in north Florida that will use waste wood products - such as yard trimmings, tree bark and wood knots from paper mills - to generate electricity. It will produce about 75 megawatts. The plant is expected to avoid the need to burn the equivalent of nearly 5 million tons of coal over the 20-year life of the contract, thus avoiding around 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
The southeast is the most biomass-rich area of the United States. Any comprehensive plan for energy production for the state of Florida should include renewable energy, and biomass must be an integral part of that plan. - Glenn Farris, president and CEO of Biomass Gas & Electric.
The green energy plant will use a gasification process to turn biomass into a gas that is directly substitutable for natural gas. To do so, it relies on the SilvaGas process developed by Future Energy Resources Corporation.

The process consists of the following steps (diagram, click to enlarge):
  1. Wood chips or other biomass materials are loaded into the gasifier
  2. In the gasifier the biomass is mixed with hot sand (1,800º F), turning it into product gas and residual char; a small amount of steam and the rapid release product gas provides the conveying force for the reaction
  3. The residual char and cooled sand (1,500 º F) are separated from the product gas by a cyclone separator and discharged to the combustor
  4. The sand is reheated in the combustor by adding air and burning the residual char; the reheated sand is removed from the combustion gas by a cyclone separator and returned to the gasifier
  5. The product gas is cleaned in a scrubber and can be used for a variety of applications such as direct use in gas turbines, boilers, fuel cells or the production of chemicals
  6. The flue gas is a valuable source of heat that can be recovered for uses such as biomass drying, steam production or direct heating
Projected commercial operation for the plant is expected to begin in 2011. It would be BG&E's third biomass power plant. The contract will be filed for consideration with the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC). The company seeks PSC approval of the contract and certification of the proposed plant as a qualifying facility under Florida laws and regulations that encourage renewable energy:
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PEF purchases more than 800 megawatts from a number of qualifying facilities. They use various fuel sources, including biomass, waste heat from agricultural processes and municipal solid waste.

Last year, Progress Energy signed a contract with the Biomass Investment Group, to purchase the energy output (130 MW) from the nation's largest biomass plant to be built in Central Florida. The project, which will utilize environmentally friendly E-grass (earlier post) as its fuel source, will reduce carbon emissions by more than 20 million tons over the 25-year life of the contract when compared to coal.

Progress Energy Florida is a subsidiary of Progress Energy, and provides electricity and related services to nearly 1.7 million customers in Florida.

References:
Progress Energy Florida: Progress Energy Florida signs contract for renewable energy from biomass plant - July 26, 2007.

The SilvaGas process, overview.


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Researchers and producers optimistic about sweet sorghum as biofuel feedstock

In the U.S. corn is by far the largest carbohydrate source used to produce ethanol. But for a wide range of reasons, scientists are looking at alternative feedstocks. Sorghum has been identified as a promising candidate both in the U.S. (earlier post) and in the developing world (more here).


Dr. Bob Avant, program manager for the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station's bioenergy initiative, stands in front of tall sorghum being bred for biofuel production in College Station. Pictured front are hybrid sorghum varieties used in conventional cross-pollination with tall sorghum. The research effort is led by Dr. Bill Rooney, Experiment Station plant scientist. Credit: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, photo by Jerrold Summerlin.

The tropical grass species narrowly related to sugar cane is robust, needs relatively small amounts of water and is being bred to become drought-tolerant and more sugar-rich. It can be grown and processed following a model that resembles the highly successful sugarcane ethanol industry in Brazil.

Dr. Bill Rooney, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher, is one of the scientists who hopes to contribute to this new vision by producing a high-tonnage and sugar-rich variety that could soon be used for bioenergy. His test field at the College Station shows a sorghum crop towering 12-feet high.

Sorghum as a source of biofuels had some of the U.S. top scientists at the recently held Great Plains Sorghum Conference enthusiastic about its future. The good thing is that the farmers who will have to grow the crop have joined the scientists in their optimism.
If modeled after the sugarcane industry, a tall sorghum variety producing 20-plus tons to the acre transported to a processing plant within a 40-mile radius would economically viable [50 tons per hectare and a radius of 65 km]. The sugarcane industry has been doing this for a long time. What we're not saying is switchgrass or corn isn't a viable crop, but if we can grow sorghum, it's worth giving a serious look. We believe this paradigm is happening and will happen. - Dr. Bill McCutchen, deputy associate director of the Experiment Station of Texas
Sorghum can play a pivotal role in the biofuel future because the crop needs far less water than corn while producing more biomass. But like corn, it can fit into first generation starch and sugar based conversions as well as in next-generation cellulosic ethanol pathways. And as in the Brazilian model, in a first instance, ethanol can be produced from the sugar of the crop, while its biomass residues (bagasse) could be used as a solid biomass feedstock for the production of green power at the conversion plant.

Sugar and water
Dr. Rooney's research has focused on improving sorghum as a bioenergy feedstock. The sorghum breeding program in College Station changed about four years ago, he told a group of researchers at the conference. On the side, they began working on bioenergy and sweet sorghums. It's meanwhile evolved into a project that has consumed a good portion of time.

Like sugarcane, sorghum can be converted into ethanol with relative ease. The tall sorghum trials in College Station boast superior genes from hybrid sorghums. Specifically, Rooney is evaluating the sorghum's sugar content. He wants to develop a high-sugar hybrid, but this means he needs have to have high levels of sugar on both sides of the parent.

Using cross-pollination of selected hybrid varieties, Rooney will soon establish a superior, high-yielding plant variety commercially viable for biofuel production. He's also attempting to include genetic traits that withstand periods of drought:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The tall sorghum trials are also being conducted in Weslaco and Lubbock. Another component of the research is harvesting. Rooney and other scientists are evaluating composition and yield both for animal feed and ethanol production, he said. One of the things they are looking at is to see how long can you leave the crop in the field.

Sugarcane model
The state of Texas is positioned to help meet the challenge of producing 1 billion tons of biomass needed to replace 30 percent of the America's petroleum, says Dr. Bill McCutchen, deputy associate director of the state's Experiment Station. Texas already is one of the largest biomass producers in the nation.

Using plant cellulose from Texas crops, such as sorghum, not only "has incredible potential, but also big potential for by-products", McCutchen told the conference.

According to McCutchen, sorghum produces more biomass than corn, using 33 percent less water. He thinks sorghum may have been overlooked as a potential biomass product.

If modeled after the sugarcane industry, a tall sorghum variety producing 20-plus tons to the acre transported to a processing plant within a 40-mile radius would economically viable [50 tons per hectare and a radius of 65 km].

The sugarcane industry has been doing this for a long time, McCutchen says. "What we're not saying is switchgrass or corn isn't a viable crop, but if we can grow sorghum, it's worth giving a serious look. We believe this paradigm is happening and will happen."

But how to incorporate these crops into an existing portfolio of feedstock crops and other cash commodities in Texas is a challenge that lies ahead. "One of the things we envision is we want to be able to grow dedicated biomass crops for fuel within a diverse system," he added.

The design of sorghum is being aided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s sorghum genome sequencing project and technology platforms developed by funding from the National Science Foundation. Acquiring fundamental knowledge about optimal sorghum biomass and biofuels design will aid in developing related biofuels crops such as corn, sugarcane, and switchgrass.

References:
Texas A&M University System Agriculture Program: Sorghum Producers Optimistic About Biofuel Potential - July 26, 2007.

Texas Agricultural Experiment Station: Designing Sorghum for the U.S. Biofuels Industry [*.pdf].

Bioenergy and biofuels research at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Green Energy Resources receives biomass export order on strong European currencies

The record strength of the euro and the pound has some interesting consequences for the steadily growing international trade in biomass. The high euro/pound means petroleum imports are comparatively less costly for Europeans than for the U.S., because oil is quoted in dollars. On the other hand, American exporters benefit from the weak dollar and can ship goods competitively across the pond.

These two basic dynamics combined with record oil prices result in European interest in importing raw biomass from America that can be used to replace oil and coal in power plants.

In this context, New York based Green Energy Resources announces it has received a new export order for delivery of woody biomass to Europe. The order, contracted in British pounds, is for 40,000 tons delivered or about $2.6 million dollars. The shipment is subject to ship scheduling and planned for later this year. The shipment will be the first biomass export to the UK from North America.

High oil prices make alternative energy production very cost effective to power producers. Oil is nearing $80 per barrel and US consumption in 2007 is exceeding that of 2006. The US dollar is currently about .45 cents to the British pound and about .62 cents on the Euro. Green Energy Resources has targeted a 20% market share of European biomass imports by 2011. The European biomass market should exceed $1 billion dollars by 2010 according to various European agencies

According to Green Energy Resources, biomass continues to be the workhorse of the renewable energy industry leading solar and wind energy production by more than double, according to the US Department of Energy 2006 statistics. A property that sets biomass and biofuels apart from other renewables is the fact that it can be physically traded, allowing producers and consumers to target markets in a dynamic way:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

According to EurObeserver's latest Solid Biomass Barometer, in 2005 primary solid biomass production for energy in the EU increased markedly with 3.1 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) compared to 2004. The increase in the price of fossil fuels and the necessity for politicians to take environmentally sound decisions has had positive effects on the biomass sector in 2005. The biomass market in Europe is maturing, which means the gates are opening biomass trade.

Electricity production from solid biomass has increased markedly between 2004 and 2005 with a growth of 16.1%, according to the barometer mainly due to the establishment of biomass fired combined heat and power (CHP) plants in Germany and the Netherlands (earlier post).

References:
dBusinessNews: High Oil and Record Currency exchange rates are Great News for alternative energy exports for Green Energy Resources - July 27, 2007.

Biopact: Solid biomass production for energy in EU increases markedly - December 21, 2006


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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nuclear energy faces security nightmare

The nuclear energy lobby tries to eke out a place in the alternative energy sector by claiming atomic power is both 'clean' and 'safe'. One of the strategies it frequently uses is to discredit renewables like wind, biomass, solar and hydro. A recent article published by Jesse Ausubel in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology gives an excellent example of this questionable approach. In his piece, Ausubel aggresively attacks wind, biomass, solar and hydropower saying these technologies 'will wreck the environment' because they take up too much space, compared to nuclear power plants.

Ausubel's single-minded article of course doesn't analyse the multiple problems faced by nuclear facilities: uranium is a finite resource that will soon deplete (and fourth generation reactors are nowhere near feasibility); mining it poses severe hidden health risks and costs to millions that are much higher than earlier assumed; nuclear energy is expensive with society carrying the costs of all 'externalities'; there is no solution to the huge waste problem (the nuke lobby has been promising decade after decade to find one, but it comes up short each time) and current storage methods are not as safe as predicted (more here). Moreover, atomic energy is far from clean - its life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions are higher than those of other renewables. Finally, a more in-depth look at the security risks faced by nuclear power also reveals that the sector forms the basis of potential nuclear war and terrorism, and that it fuels the worst kind of geostrategic insecurity and instability.

Some of these dramatic risks are highlighted today in research papers published in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology.

The first major threat is at the source of the raw material for nuclear power itself, the uranium mine, processing plant, and transport route. Here, physical protection and security are at a much lower level than at a nuclear installation in the developed world, according to analyses by Austrian scientists.

The second threat is from saboteurs with expertise in the industry and the security of nuclear installations. Researchers from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that such saboteurs on the inside could wreak havoc and cause serious environmental and health threats with only small, shaped explosives or even no explosives at all.

Finally, a third major threat, at the waste end of the nuclear industry, is analysed by a second US team which points out that the significant quantities of spent radioactive fuel could also represent a security nightmare. The team from environmental health and safety consultants S. Cohen and Associates, in Montgomery Alabama, point out that there is no secure central repository for nuclear waste. Any one of the waste storage or processing plants could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Let us have a closer look at these three stages which all pose multiple security threats.

Security nightmare at the mine
Friedrich Steinhäusler and Lyudmila Zaitseva of the Division of Physics and Biophysics, at the University of Salzburg, Austria, have investigated the potential security threats facing the industry at the initial mining and milling end of the nuclear process:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

At this point, terrorists or saboteurs might intercept highly radioactive material. For instance, they might instigate illegal mining of an officially closed uranium mine or diverse uranium ore from a mine or mill, or more obviously demolition of facilities with the intention of causing environmental harm.

According to the Austrian team, uranium mining takes place in almost twenty countries, but 90% of world production is in just ten; seven of these states have been associated with clandestine nuclear activities.

"The current control system is inadequate as it could allow rogue nations or terrorist groups to traffic uranium or enriched yellow cake in at least 24 countries on three continents," say the researchers, "There is a critical need to counter the threats resulting from an uncontrolled acquisition of these radioactive materials in a coordinated manner."

Sabotage, insider knowledge and terrorism at the plant
Anthony Honnellio of the Emergency Response Branch OSSR and Stan Rydell of the Pesticides Toxics and Radiation Unit, both divisions of the US Environmental Protection Agency in Boston, realized that there have been many reports on nuclear security that focus on terrorist attack from outside. However, they explain that sabotage by individuals with a detailed knowledge of security procedures, plant layout and the functional nature of the critical components of a nuclear power plant, could exploit their knowledge to catastrophic effect.

They speculate that small explosives could be smuggled in as they have been into airports, despite post-9/11 security improvements. Their concerns do not lie only with the effects of an explosion. They suggest that critical damage to facility could cause widespread, long-lasting power outages to devastating effect.

Nuclear waste nightmare
In considering nuclear waste, Edwin Sensintaffar and Charles Phillips of S. Cohen and Associates highlight a recent review of security at commercial spent nuclear fuel plants, that suggests various vulnerabilities. A deliberate fire at such a facility could cause widespread radioactive contamination, with serious health and environmental consequences.

"The radioactive contamination that could be released into the environment from such an event could contaminate thousands of square kilometers, result in billions of dollars in economic impact and large numbers of both early and latent cancer deaths," the researchers say.

If these multiple threats were to be factored in into the costs of nuclear power, this type of energy would be much more expensive than it is today. But as things are now, society at large carries the burden of these risks.

Photo: an open pit uranium mine in Shinkolobwe, DRCongo, that has come in the news numerous times because of illegal mining and smuggling. The International Atomic Energy Agency has called for increased security at this mine but the non-existence of a State in Congo has made it extremely difficult to protect it. Many mines in the developing world face similar problems.

References:
Friedrich Steinhausler, Lyudmila Zaitseva, "Uranium mining and milling: material security and risk assessment", International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, 2007 - Vol. 1, No.3 pp. 286 - 304, DOI: 10.1504/IJNGEE.2007.014675

Anthony L. Honnellio and Stan Rydell, "Sabotage vulnerability of nuclear power plants", International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, 2007 - Vol. 1, No.3 pp. 312 - 321, DOI: 10.1504/IJNGEE.2007.014677

Edwin L. Sensintaffar, Charles R. Phillips, "Environmental impact resulting from a fire at a spent nuclear fuel storage facility", International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, 2007 - Vol. 1, No.3 pp. 278 - 285, DOI: 10.1504/IJNGEE.2007.014674

Eurekalert: Three-pronged nuclear attack - A trio of threats face nuclear installation - July 26, 2007.


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Isoprene emission from plants protects photosynthesis against heat stress

Scientists are only beginning to understand the complex process of photosynthesis with which plants use light to fix CO2 and transform it into energy. A new insight into the finetuned mechanism and how plants ensure that it keeps working in changing environmental conditions now comes from experiments with genetically altered poplars. Many woody plant species emit large qualities of isoprene, a hydrocarbon volatile compound, with significant impacts on atmospheric chemistry. Scientists have always suspected that this compound somehow protects particular metabolic processes in plants. And it seems they were right: isporene shields photosynthesis from heat stress.

The Australian Blue Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains (photo) in the Eastern United States are so called because of the spectral properties of the huge amounts of isoprenes emitted from the trees growing there. Although a positive correlation has been observed between leaf temperature and isoprene emission in plants, the physiological role of isoprene emissions, which is clearly quite costly to the plant, has been under vigorous debate.

One of the most popular hypotheses suggests that isoprene protects the metabolic processes in the leaf, in particular photosynthesis, against thermal stress. To test this hypothesis, scientists Katja Behnke and Jörg-Peter Schnitzler from the Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research of the Research Centre Karlsruhe in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, together with colleagues from the Universities of Braunschweig and Göttingen, also in Germany, and British Columbia, in Canada, recently applied genetic engineering techniques to obtain transgenic Grey poplar (Populus x canescens) trees with decreased isoprene emission, and examined their tolerance to heat. Their findings have been published in as an open access article in the August edition of The Plant Journal.

Behnke et al. engineered such poplar trees by suppressing the expression of the gene encoding isoprene synthase (ISPS), the enzyme producing isoprene, by RNA interference (RNAi). They then subjected these trees to transient heat phases of 38-42°C, each followed by phases of recovery at 30°C, and measured the performance of photosynthesis:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In these experiments, Behnke et al. observed that photosynthesis in trees that no longer emitted isoprenes was much less efficient under such repeated “heat shocks” (a situation that is similar to what happens in nature, where temperatures around the leaves often oscillate, with short heat spikes). Thus, their results clearly indicate that isoprenes have an important role in protecting the leaves from the harmful effects of high ambient temperature.

New questionsarise: How does isoprene confer heat tolerance? Does isoprene act as an antioxidant due to its chemical reactivity? And more generally, is this effect of significance under natural conditions for poplar and other isoprene-emitting species. The researchers aim to analyse the biophysical and biochemical mechanisms of heat effects on photosynthesis and chloroplasts, and future long-term field trials will test whether the isoprene effect represents a positive adaptive trait for isoprene-producing species.

Photo: the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Eastern United States are called so because the isoprene emitted by the trees alters the surrounding atmospheric chemistry, with a blue 'haze' as a consequence.

References:
Katja Behnke, Barbara Ehlting, Markus Teuber, Martina Bauerfeind, Sandrine Louis, Robert Hänsch, Andrea Polle, Jörg Bohlmann, Jörg-Peter Schnitzler (2007), "Transgenic, non-isoprene emitting poplars don’t like it hot", The Plant Journal 51 (3), 485–499, doi:10.1111/j.1365-313X.2007.03157.x

Eurekalert: Isoprene emission from plants - a volatile answer to heat stress - July 26, 2007.


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Eurobarometer: Europeans want cleaner and improved mobility

Although the private car remains the main mode of transport for EU citizens, there is great awareness about its impact on the environment and traffic situation. Likewise, with increased fuel prices and growing evidence of climate change, the transport sector has become the object of increased scrutiny amongst the public. According to a Eurobarometer opinion survey released today, most Europeans favour measures to promote cleaner and more sustainable mobility and to encourage the use of public transport. The survey also revealed citizens' attitudes towards the ways in which they want the EU to promote biofuels. Their views on air transport security and air passenger rights were part of the barometer as well.
This survey clearly shows that mobility is an essential part of EU citizens' lives and that they expect a high quality and reliable transport system. We are working for a transport policy focused clearly on our citizens’ needs and expectations as reflected by this poll: better environmental protection, higher levels of safety, less congestion in big cities and stronger rights as consumers. - Jacques Barrot, European Commission Vice-President in charge of Transport
The Eurobarometer survey titled 'Attitudes on issues related to EU Transport Policy' [*.pdf] covered all 27 Member States of the European Union on a randomly selected sample of around 26,000 citizens on issues related to urban and public transport, biofuels, environmental and traffic aspects, flight safety and passenger rights.

Private motorized transport remains predominant in the European Union: 81% of EU citizens have a car in their household. The majority of EU citizens (51%) name the car as their main mode of transport, followed by public transport (21%), walking (15%) and motorbike (2%). There are however large differences between citizens of different EU member states (graph, click to enlarge).

Improvements to public transportation, such as better schedule (29%) and better connections to regular destinations (28%), might encourage those citizens who primarily use their cars for daily mobility to drive less often. However, a remarkable proportion (22%) of car users says that under no circumstances would they use their car less.

The vast majority of the EU citizens (78%) share the opinion that the type of car and the way people use them have an important impact on the environment. The majority (35%) of respondents believe that the best way to reverse the rise of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions due to road transport would be to permit only the sale of less polluting vehicles. Another 30% think that CO2 emissions could be reduced most efficiently by promoting, via tax incentives, the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles.

When asked what method, if any, they had actually used in the past one year to save fuel, more than half of the respondents who are the primary driver of a car in their household tried to do it either by adapting their driving style (57%) or by walking or cycling more (56%). Fewer respondents used public transport more often (26%), or changed to another car which consumes less fuel (25%), while 16% did not use any of the methods indicated in the questionnaire and 4% of them applied all the methods mentioned to save fuel (graph, click to enlarge).

How to promote biofuels?

According to 36% of EU citizens, the best method to encourage the use of biofuels is to make it cheaper via tax incentives. The second most preferred (32%) measure is to define compulsory standards for manufacturers to produce cars that use biofuels. The remaining measures were mentioned by a much smaller proportion (around one tenth) of the citizens. Crop subsidies for biofuel production was mentioned by 13%, and higher taxes for polluting vehicles using traditional fossil fuels by 10% of the respondents (graph, click to enlarge).

There is a high level of variation between individual Member States and between gender and age groups in the degree to which different measures were mentioned:
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The Finnish citizens were the most likely to mention (more than half of the population) that reducing the price of biofuel would best promote the consumption of bio fuel (54%). A relatively high proportion of the Swedish (48%), the Lithuanians (47%) and the Hungarians (46%) also shared this opinion. The Spanish were least likely to pick this approach – - to decrease biofuel prices –- to encourage the use of it (20%). Still, in most Member States (in 20 countries out of the 27), this incentive was given the highest preference.

In the remaining 7 (seven) countries, (Portugal, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and Greece) "compulsory standards for the manufacturers to produce cars that use biofuel" was the most trusted measure. Among the citizens in the above countries, the Portuguese were the most supportive (43%) of this method. They were followed by those in the UK (40%), in Germany (39%), Austria (38%) and Spain (36%). This method was considered to be the least efficient way to encourage the purchase and the use of bio fuel by the citizens in Malta (14%) and Finland (16%).

In every country, less than one fourth of the population considered crop subsidies for biofuel production the best method to encourage the use of biofuel. This ratio was the highest among the Hungarians (24%) and was also relatively high in Slovakia (21%) and Poland (20%)- all important agricultural countries. This incentive was considered to be the best by only 5% in Germany 6% in the UK, and 7% in Ireland.

At the level of the EU27 countries, higher taxes for polluting vehicles using traditional fossil fuel was also considered to be an efficient tool to encourage the consumption of biofuel by only a very small proportion of the respondents, but there are differences among the individual Member States in this respect: the citizens in Luxemburg (17%) and Denmark (17%) mentioned it relatively most frequently, while the Hungarians (3%) and the Polish (8%) quite rarely.


Women were more likely than men to favour compulsory standards for manufacturers to produce cars that use biofuels, while men considered all the other incentives more efficient than the one mentioned by the highest proportion of female respondents.
In the age group of 25 to 39 years of age, there was a higher ratio of those who mentioned more frequently than the other age groups tax incentives to make bio fuel cheaper. Other demographic groups (besides the age group of 25 - 39, the most qualified respondents, the manual workers and the primary car users) also thought that tax incentives to make biofuels cheaper would be the most efficient way to encourage their use.

At the same time, a higher proportion of the members of the youngest age group consider higher taxes for polluting vehicles using traditional fossil fuels to be the best incentive. Besides the youngest age group, the option for higher taxes for polluting vehicles was indicated by a relatively higher proportion of those who are still in school, too.

The highest proportion of respondents in the age group of 25 - 39 thought that compulsory standards for manufacturers are the best way to encourage the use of biofuels; the same attitude hold those who are still in school and employees with relatively higher ratio, too. This method was considered to be the best to encourage the use of bio fuel by more of those who drive their car than by others.

It is more than evident, that the ratio of those who found crop subsidies for biofuel production to be the best way to promote the use of biofuels was the highest among citizens in rural zones and the lowest among citizens in metropolitan zones. The ratio of those who share the above opinion is relatively higher among manual workers than in the other demographic segments.


Three in four (74%) EU citizens are well aware that the type of car and the way people use them have a significant influence on the traffic situation in their immediate area. An overwhelming majority (90% of respondents) feel that the traffic situation in their area should be improved by means of a better public transport system (49%), introducing limitations in the city centres (17%), speed limits (17%) or charges for road usage (5%).


A slim majority of EU citizens is prepared to pay more to use less polluting transport (54%). However, the majority of Europeans (60%) do not agree with the statement that all road users should pay for congestion and environmental damage through road tolls, while 35% do (graph, click to enlarge).


A large number of the citizens in the EU (38%) responded that they seldom fly, and are thus not really competent to answer questions concerning security controls at airports. The majority of respondents that do fly consider airport security controls appropriate (61%), one quarter (24%) find them insufficient and only 16% think they are excessive. Finally, 46% of EU citizens are informed about passenger rights at airports in EU territory, while 49% are not aware of them. Among the later, around two thirds never fly while one third said that they were not aware of these rights in spite of the fact that they do travel by plane.

References:

European Commission, Eurobarometer: Attitudes on issues related to EU Transport Policy - Analytical report [*.pdf], July 2007.

Financial Mirror: Europeans want improved mobility - July 26, 2007.


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Substitution logic: expensive corn creates market for oil palm protein as animal feed

Growing global demand for biofuels and the scarcity it has created in the supply of key a feed grain such as corn has been a blessing in disguise for some of the lesser-known palm oil byproducts such as palm kernel expeller (PKE), an animal feed ingredient (table shows properties, click to enlarge). PKE or palm kernel cake is obtained when palm kernel oil (PKO) is pressed out of palm nuts to yield a high quality oil that differs from crude palm oil (CPO), which comes from the palm fruit mesocarp.

PKE has also been used increasingly as a biomass feedstock as an alternative to coal (previous post). The fact that the byproduct now has two markets to play on, means that a kind of floor price has emerged, taking away the ever looming threat of collapsing prices, which have haunted oil palm producers in the past. This is only possible because PKE is the most competitive amongst the alternatives on both markets - largely the result of the mere fact that oil palm trees are naturally extremely efficient biomass producers.

According to Daniel Cheow, managing director of Malaysian PKE exporter Palmbase, the protein-rich PKE is now reaping the benefits of the global biofuels boom by substituting other animal feed sources such as corn gluten that are becoming far more expensive. He estimates that PKE, produced mainly in Malaysia and Indonesia, already contributes up to 30% to the compound animal feed blend in Europe compared to 10% to 20% in previous years.
Just like crude palm oil, PKE prices have shot up as demand is coming in much faster than expected, due indirectly to biofuels. The last time we saw these kind of prices was during the Gulf War and that was because of freight and shipping problems then. - Daniel Cheow, managing director of Palmbase
PKE is currently trading at around $120 a metric ton, free on board Malaysian ports, more than double the level a year ago. In the long run, prices are unlikely to keep rising as eventually, demand would slowdown and production of grains in general would increase, Cheow said.

For the short-term, however, PKE will continue to ride on the back of the expansion in the biofuels sector as buyers in major markets like Europe have little choice, not only because of a tight corn supply, but also because of concerns about genetically-modified corn.

The discovery of traces of unapproved genetically-modified varieties in shipments of regular corn have prompted some feed manufacturers in Europe to switch to substitutes:
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According to Cheow, in Europe, there is zero tolerance for GM products. So, instead of corn gluten, they are looking at the next substitute, PKE.

PKE, long dependent on European buyers, is also gaining ground in new markets such as Australia and New Zealand, another factor behind the rally in prices, Cheow said.

"World grain prices have gone up a lot and people are looking for alternatives. Although PKE prices have also gone up, it's still cheaper and viable for their (feed) formulas," Cheow added.

In the first half of 2007, Malaysia exported 985,151 tons of PKE, outstripping production of 961,742 tons. PKE's increasing share in the world's feed market is reflected in its price, relative to rival products.

Previously trading around $40 to $60/ton below corn gluten, PKE is now priced at a discount of only $13-$15/ton.

Impact on biomass segment
While PKE's feed market segment is growing, its biomass segment is slowing because of high prices. Over the last few years, PKE was gaining in popularity as an alternative to coal for burning in power plants for electricity generation.

However, its progress in the energy sector has all but come to a halt in recent month as it has become too expensive as a coal alternative, Cheow said.

Unless government subsidies are increased, PKE prices would need to fall back at least 20% before power producers can resume the use of PKE as biomass, he said.

Floor price
Still, the emergence of a biomass market for PKE, which until recently was almost exclusively used for feed, at least ensures that prices won't be in danger of a collapse.

"There's now a floor price for PKE, a level at which we know there will be demand coming in to support it," Cheow said. "This is good for the future of PKE."

For all the promise PKE holds for the future, the industry still has plenty of work to do to ensure PKE doesn't lose the advantage it's recently won over competing products, Cheow said.

The inconsistent quality of PKE available remains a concern because of poor handling of the product along the supply chain. PKE cargoes can sometimes include excessive levels of water and moisture, Cheow said.

Continued failure to tighten quality controls would hurt the industry in the long-run as shipments may be at risk of being rejected. "At this moment, this is not a major issue because buyers need the product," Cheow said.

"But when the (global feed ingredient) supply situation stabilizes and buyers have more choices, this may become a problem because buyers won't want to be paying so much money to buy water."

Image: properties of palm kernel cake compared to other oilmeals. Credit: Malaysian Palm Oil Council.

References:
Cecu: DJ INTERVIEW:Biofuels Boom Extends To Minor Palm Oil Products - July 26, 2007.

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Rising surface ozone reduces plant growth and adds to global warming

Scientists from three leading UK research institutes have released new findings that could have major implications for food production and global warming in the 21st century. Their research is published online in the current issue fof Nature.

Experts from the Met Office, the University of Exeter and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, have found that projections of increasing ozone near the Earth's surface could lead to significant reductions in regional plant production and crop yields. Surface ozone also damages plants, affecting their ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and accelerating global warming.

Near-surface ozone has doubled since 1850 due to chemical emissions from vehicles, industrial processes, and the burning of forests.
Climate models have largely ignored atmospheric chemistry but in this research we have identified a cause of potentially increased warming with elevated levels of surface ozone likely to suppress plant growth. - Dr Stephen Sitch, climate impacts scientist at the Met Office Hadley Centre and lead author
Plants and soil are currently slowing down global warming by storing about a quarter of human carbon dioxide emissions, but the new study suggests that this could be undermined by further increases in near-surface ozone:
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As a result more carbon dioxide would accumulate in the atmosphere and add to global warming. Co-author, Professor Peter Cox of the University of Exeter, explains: "We estimate that ozone effects on plants could double the importance of ozone increases in the lower atmosphere as a driver of climate change, so policies to limit increases in near-surface ozone must be seen as an even higher priority."

References:
Michael Hopkin, et al. "Carbon sinks threatened by increasing ozone" - News@Nature 448, 396 - 397 (26 Jul 2007), doi:10.1038/448396b

Eurekalert: Rising surface ozone reduces plant growth and adds to global warming - July 25, 2007.


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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

EU study looks at pros and cons of 20 most promising alternative fuels

A number of alternative fuel technology options for road and air transport have been developed in recent years. While most of them have been extensively discussed separately, the information available is usually fragmented, being either too scientific or simplistic in its presentation, and generally not comparable. An exception is the European Union's Joint Research Centre's comprehensive well-to-wheel (WTW) study for more than 70 different fuel paths and propulsion technologies, produced in 2006 (earlier post).

Now STOA, the European Parliament's Scientific Technology Options Assessment body, has published an inventory [*.pdf] of 20 of the most promising options, which are clustered in five technologies: hydrogen and fuel cells, battery electric vehicles, hybrid technology, biofuels and natural gas. The catalogue provides a comparative overview of the pros and cons of each of these technologies.

Energy security and 'peak oil'
The authors state that until recently, alternative fuels were mainly encouraged because of their potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But since the beginning of this decade, the development has changed – issues of energy security, and especially security of oil supply, returned on the agendas of policy-makers in the European Union. The general finiteness of fossil resources and the peaking of world oil resources are at the centre of many energy-related discussions. This is due to a number of current developments.

The recently surging oil demand in large economies such as China, India or the USA has reduced spare capacity. The instability in some key producer countries (Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria) has continued and increased, especially after the events of September 11, 2001 and the following military actions. At the same time, the oil infrastructure has become a new target for – and more vulnerable to – terrorist attacks. As a result of these trends, oil prices rose from a historical low of around $10/bbl in 1999 to well above $70/bbl in 2006, with new records in 2007.

For these reasons - climate change, 'peak oil' and energy security - alternatives to petroleum and fossil fuels are now more needed than ever. 20 of the most promising fuel production paths and propulsion technologies were included in the study (table, click to enlarge).

For each fuel/propulsion technology, (1) the 'strategic impact' was assessed as reflected by factors such as their effect on the environment and human health, the capacity to maintain or improve Europe’s energy security and competitiveness; (2) deliverability, was assessed by looking at the current development status, technology potential and steadiness of industrial activities surrounding the fuel, its cost competitiveness compared to established technologies, and the number and/or severity of other barriers to commercialisation; finally, the (3) political awareness on the technologies and fuels was analysed.

Hydrogen

Focusing first on road transport, the study starts by looking at hydrogen which, when combined with fuel cells, seems to be a promising technology alternative. However, some serious technological problems remain unsolved, including for instance questions concerning the performance of fuel cells, and the production of large amounts of 'clean' hydrogen. Recently, the only affordable way of large-scale hydrogen production has been via steam-reformation from natural gas. From a mid-term perspective, this route might support the market penetration of hydrogen and of fuel cells, notes the study. The crucial point is that, in this case, hydrogen would be derived from a fossil fuel source.

Other routes are also being discussed, including the production of hydrogen from renewable sources (wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal, water) via electrolysis. This is often regarded as a kind of silver bullet since it enables close to zero emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). "But it is not clear if, at which time, and in which regions the production of hydrogen from renewable sources will be feasible at larger scales and at reasonable costs", says the study.

A 'clean' production of hydrogen from nuclear power is feasible as well, but the drawbacks here are the finiteness of uranium sources and the acceptance of the use of nuclear power. In terms of climate security, the study predicts that the coal route will only be suitable if it is combined with CO2 sequestration and storage (CSS):
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Hybrids
Assessing the use of hybrid technology, the study finds that this option offers the possibility to save energy and emissions by using established technologies and infrastructures. Whatever fuel and propulsion technology will be dominant in 20 to 30 years, the authors of the study predict that that hybrid technology will be part of the propulsion system. It is an important component of most fuel cell concepts and there seems to be a high potential to further improve the efficiency of conventional fuels.

Fully electric vehicles
The development of pure electric cars is also explored. Here the study remarks that the commercialisation of such vehicles will strongly depend on the development of suitable batteries. In spite of decades of research and development activities, decisive technological breakthroughs regarding batteries are not in sight. "Yet, a surprising breakthrough in battery technology is not completely impossible and would surely entail radical changes to both the transport and the energy sector", say the authors of the study.

Biofuels
No inventory on alternative fuel sources would be complete without an assessment of biofuels - currently the only commercially feasible alternatives to petroleum fuels. The bio-based fuels take up most of the space in the report because there are so many pathways to producing them (overview, click to enlarge).

While recognising the ease at which so-called first generation fuels, mainly biodiesel and bioethanol, can be produced today, the study sees second generation fuels (biomass-to-liquids, cellulosic ethanol) as the most the way forward over the longer term. Unlike their ancestors, second generation biofuels can be made using the whole plant and from a wide variety of biomass sources. Biogas as a transport fuel as well is seen as having the potential to contribute to climate and energy security. Blends with natural gas are imaginable.
It is estimated that roughly between 20% and 30% of EU27 road transport fuels in 2030 could be covered by biofuels derived from European biomass (e.g. energy crops, agricultural and forestry residues, organic fraction of municipal solid waste).
But to meet the continent's fuel needs, it is likely that biomass will have to be imported from abroad. This should be critically discussed, argues the study. Note that the report was written before the EU's International Conference on Biofuels (July 5-6, Brussels), where such imports and trade were extensively analysed.

Natural gas
Natural gas technology (CNG) is feasible in the transport sector and has the potential to bring at least mid term improvements in terms of energy security and GHG emissions – whereby it is crucial that real 'gas-engines' are being developed. But in particular its possible contribution to energy security strongly depends on the overall demand on natural gas. It is likely, that CNG vehicles will become at least established for niche applications (e.g. in larger fleets, in inner cities). Autogas (LPG) is a relatively uncomplicated technology. It offers environmental benefits at relatively low costs. It is becoming rather popular in several European countries.
Since both CNG and LPG are based on fossil feedstock they must be considered as bridging technologies. They might help to pave the way for cleaner gaseous fuels such as hydrogen, bio-methane or DME.

Alternative aviation fuels
Regarding the air transport sector, the study notes that presently there is no alternative propulsion system to the gas turbine in sight. Research on alternative fuels and alternative fuel sources as well as on new propulsion technologies is in early stages. Yet, the pros and cons of biofuels and hydrogen for aviation are discussed in the report.

Biofuels
On biomass-based aviation fuels, the report says that kerosene could well be derived from biomass. Biomass derived admixtures to kerosin would be possible.

But besides the general restrictions, such as available acreage or energy efficiency, for aviation operational and safety requirements are much tighter than for road transport. One aspect in this context is that the fuel still must be perfectly liquid at low temperatures in great heights. Presently, there are no biofuels established for aviation (but hey are under development). Taken from the technical side it should be no problem to introduce them to the market as admixtures to fossil kerosene; similar to the road transport sector.

However, deliverability is strongly restricted by the absolute amount of available biomass as well as by the use of biomass in other sectors, such as the road transport sector or the generations of heat and power. It looks as if there would be easier and more efficient ways of making use of the existing biomass potential. In spite of innovative technologies, such as so-called second generation biofuels, it is not likely that the amount of available biomass will be large enough to serve road transport and air transport simultaneously, the report says. Biopact begs to differ, given a large number of studies on global biomass potentials. Imports are the way forward.

Hydrogen
When it comes to hydrogen in airplanes, in principle, conventional gas turbines only need to be slightly adapted for the combustion of hydrogen. The major problem is storing large amounts of hydrogen in the airplane. This has a major impact on the general design of the airplane there have been no prototypes constructed yet. Furthermore, from today’s point of view it seems to be difficult to supply a large airport with the immense amounts of hydrogen that would be needed to serve the entire demand.

The report concludes that itt is not likely that hydrogen will be used in air transport before it will have been established in the road transport sector. It is hypothetical but it would be interesting to see to what extent new designs of aircrafts would offer chances to implement new propulsion technologies. For example, it is easier to install a cryonic hydrogen tank in a “flying wing” than in a conventional airplane.

Conclusion
The technologies compiled in the analysis are all promising but all have clearly weak points and bottlenecks. Each single technological pathway faces difficulties in terms of serving the complete future fuel demand of the EU27. Innovations will be needed in order to tackle the three central challenges in this field: climate change, energy security and competitive challenges.

However, in the long run the predicted phase-out of oil would make business-as-usual impossible for all oil-based technological contexts. A phase-out of oil would, at the same time, exert pressure on European innovation regimes – “something new” has to come. Policy strategies should remain flexible and open enough to support ground-breaking innovations.

References:
European Parliament, Scientific Technology Options Assessment: Alternative Technology Options for Road and Air Transport (IP/A/STOA/SC/2005-179) [*.pdf] - June 2007.

CORDIS: Study assesses pros and cons of alternative fuel technologies - July 25, 2007.



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U.S. House critics want 30% cut in crop subsidies

As some organisations fully endorse the new U.S. Farm Bill and ask for its swift funding (earlier post), critics in the House of Representatives unveiled a plan that would cut crop subsidy spending by 30 percent while boosting spending on public nutrition, land stewardship and specialty crop programs. The debate is important from the point of view of the chances for the developing world to participate in the nascent bioeconomy. If wealthy nations keep heavily subsidizing their own farmers, a Doha trade deal is ever more unlikely. It seems that the new U.S. legislation goes in the wrong direction and ups subsidies even further.

In the EU, Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson warned that the rapidly growing biofuels and bioproducts industry should not constitute a new round of subsidizing of wealthy farmers in the North. Instead, they may offer a way to finally start reducing farm subsidies.

In the U.S. the new Farm Bill clearly has its critics. First of all, representative Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, and his allies complain that the House Agriculture Committee's farm bill plan, now awaiting a vote from the entire House, offered "virtually no reform" of farm subsidies, so they will offer his alternative during debate later this week.

Kind proposes cutting grain, cotton and soybean outlays by $12 billion through 2012, a 30 percent reduction from the $40 billion now projected. This, he said, will allow Congress to spend another $5.6 billon on programs like food stamps, US$3 billion on land stewardship and US$1.2 billion to aid fruit and vegetable farmers.

At virtually the same time that Kind and a half-dozen allies announced their package, Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson assembled more than 200 people who support his committee's bill.

Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat. He cited more stringent rules on who can collect farm subsidies, along with proposals to expand biofuels by $2.5 billion, public nutrition by $4.2 billion, land stewardship by $2.9 billion and specialty crop programs by more than $1 billion over five years.

Crop subsidy rules have become the test of reform in the farm bill. Peterson's committee voted to deny subsidies to people with an adjusted gross income above $1 million and to require payments to be tracked to an individual, ending a system that allows growers to receive supports indirectly:
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Kind and his allies proposed their own cap for adjusted gross income of $250,000 and an annual payment cap of $250,000. A fact sheet for their package indicated growers could continue to collect payments indirectly. The committee bill removed a cap on revenue from price supports.

At present, people with up to $2.5 million a year in income are eligible for crop and stewardship payments. The Bush administration suggested a $200,000 limit, which would affect an estimated 38,000 of the wealthiest American farmers. The $1 million cut-off would hit 9,500 people.

While the committee bill would help bankroll the development of cellulose as a feedstock for making ethanol, the Kind package would use $2 billion to reduce the deficit. Neither approach would change the ban on growing fruit and vegetables on land eligible for crop subsidies, a prohibition the administration says must be ended.

The Environmental Working Group, which favors larger stewardship spending, criticized the Agriculture Committee subsidy proposal as "the AGI ruse." It said a USDA analysis showed 9,500 landlords and farmers had an adjusted gross income above $1 million and a third of them actually receive the payment, so the new rule would "affect almost no high-income farmers or landowners."

Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer said the group backing the bill would propose several smaller-scale amendments. One would allow the Bush administration to spend $100 million in famine-relief to buy food in neighboring countries. At the moment, all food aid has to be shipped from the United States.

References:
Reuters: Cut US crop subsidies 30 pct, say House critics - July 24, 2007.

Reuters: Don't use biofuels to fund farmers: EU trade chief - July 4, 2007.

International Conference on Biofuels, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson: The Biofuels Challenge [*.pdf, video presentation] - Juy 5, 2007.

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Biotechnology Industry Organisation commends U.S. Farm Bill proposal

The president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) commends the new Farm Bill that was passed by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee on July 19 and awaits a vote by the entire House. The legistlation pushes forward the 'bioeconomy' through a set of incentives and subsidies. The entire bioenergy and bioproducts support package may total US$4.5 billion through 2012 (earlier post). BIO presents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across from 32 nations in Europe and North America.

Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the organisation released the following statement:
The forward-looking proposals included in the Farm Bill passed July 19 by the House Agriculture Committee can help America lessen its dependence on foreign oil by promoting renewable energy, biobased products, and sustainable new sources of biomass. However, without the necessary funding, the historic promise of the proposed legislation may not be realized.
To rapidly achieve a level of biofuel production that will substantially lessen U.S. dependence on imported energy, the biofuels industry needs continued investment both in construction of large-scale biorefineries and in ongoing research and development in enzymes and other biorefinery processes and feedstocks, the president adds.

The proposed Farm Bill authorizes both loan guarantees to back construction of next-generation biorefineries and continuation of the Biomass Research & Development Act that supports needed research into reducing the barriers to commercialization of biomass for chemicals, fuels and power.

The proposed Farm Bill also includes significant support for biofuels producers to purchase next-generation energy crops, which will help to lower the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol. It would also create a new biomass energy reserve program that would help pay farmers and communities for the production, harvest and transport of new biomass crops.

Further, the proposal renews and expands the U.S. government’s commitment to purchase biobased products made from renewable resources and to encourage consumer selection of these products through labeling. Biobased products such as bioplastics meet the most important environmental goals, including using less energy and other natural resources in production and lowering greenhouse gas emissions:
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Lastly, in addition to research initiatives for bioenergy crop production, the bill creates a training program that will help maintain the product integrity of biotechnology-derived seed and ensure compliance with federal regulations for agricultural biotechnology research.

The next step is to have the entire U.S. House of Representatives vote on the bill and agree on funding these initiatives included in it.

BIO represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and 31 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology.

Biopact will soon have an in-depth look at the amount of subsidies and incentives provided by the new legislation. Earlier we noted that the bill now treats sugar for the first time as a feedstock for ethanol and will subsidize its wider use in non-food sectors (previous post).

References:
U.S. House Agriculture Committee: dedicated Farm Bill website.

Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), website.


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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

EU Commissioner Louis Michel on biofuels and the developing world

All keynote speeches, debates and webstreams from the landmark International Conference on Biofuels organised by the EU and held in Brussels earlier this month, are now available online. Over the coming days, we will be presenting some highlights of this wealth of information - which signals the definitive acceptance of the idea of a 'biopact'. We begin with Louis Michel, EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, because his directorate-general will play a key role in designing and financing the EU's biofuel cooperation strategies with the Global South.
Today we are faced with a turning point, a choice. The choice between fear of change, distrust and skepticism, or a bold willingness to cease this historic opportunity. My choice is a very clear one: the developing countries cannot afford to miss this opportunity. Europe must invest in this new promising market and assist these countries to engage in sustainable biofuel production which is respectful of the environment, socially acceptable and guaranteeing open access to the market, thus providing new opportunities to poor countries. This is an enormous challenge, but we have face up to it, if we want this promising market not only to serve the interests of the richer countries. - Louis Michel, EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid
Michel's contribution to the debate consisted of a short sketch of opportunities and risks of biofuels in the South. He then outlines avenues on how the EU will help to mitigate the risks and turn them into chances for development.

On the positive side, biofuels can create a whole new market for agricultural producers and small farmers, drive rural development and combat food insecurity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide access to renewable energy. Moreover, biofuels produced in the South also bring governments a range of important benefits: a reduction of oil import bills (which have become disastrous with high oil prices; some poor governments are now forced to spend twice as much on importing oil, than on health care); employment creation on a vast scale, and greater social access to more affordable fuels, necessary to drive an economy.

But we all know there are serious risks involved as well: environmental problems arising from bad land magement, which may result in deforestation, soil and water depletion; social concerns regarding landownership, and the threat to food access for the urban poor.

Michel thinks the pros outweigh the cons and that the major challenges can be overcome. But this will only be so if international policies are put in place and if the North helps the South in mitigating the risks. The Commissioner therefor outlined three main venues which he thinks may contribute to the creation of a biofuel development strategy jointly implemented by the EU and the developing world (a 'biopact'). This is an enormous global challenge, says Michel, that must be tackled by all stakeholders involved.

Policy support
First, the Commissioner suggests the establishment of a set of support policies. These would include measures to protect landless farmers and the urban poor (who, unlike rural populations, could face increased food prices). A set of policies could be aimed at involving rural populations in the whole production chain of biofuels, as is being done in Mozambique, Swaziland and Brazil for sugar cane. Designating a minimal percentage of national feedstock production that has to come from small farmers would be one approach:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Under the Brazil's Pro-Biodiesel Program, 25% of feedstock production currently comes from small farmers. Land-use rules and planning could include the delineation of land to be used for the production of non-food crops.

Financial support
Such measures and policies would come at a cost, which brings us to financing mechanisms and trade rules. The EU Commission is prepared to cover part of the cost for developing policies and to support the creation of a framework for social and environmental impact analyses, through the European Development Fund and the Energy Facility.

This facility currently holds around €220 million (US$304 million). More technically, Michel says use of the so-called 'thematic budgetary lines' could be up for consideration as well.

Technical assistance for the development of a regulary and trade framework would be provided by the EU, as well as assistance for social and environmental impact studies.

For the ACP (Asia, Caribbean, Pacific) countries (with which the EU has special sugar support agreements), the Commission is currently carrying out feasibility and impact studies that will identify the opportunities and risks for ACP countries wishing to develop bioethanol. These studies are important because they offer the first detailed medium and long term analyses of the impacts of ethanol on these countries' markets. These studies will allow for much more targetted support mechanisms.

Trade reform
The third important avenue in which the North must play a key role is trade. The European Union's sugar regime is being reformed, which would have had some dramatic consequences on the ACP countries who enjoy preferential access to the EU. By opening the ethanol market and supporting the development of biofuels trade, the negative effects of EU sugar reform could partly be mitigated.

This is already the case for Zambia, where the Commission is helping with an impact study and regulatory reform, which must allow the country to benefit from sugar reform, instead of losing. Other examples include Jamaica, Mauritius and Madagascar.

Under the Economic Partnership Agreements which are being negotiated, the EU would strengthen and encourage South-South cooperation on biofuels amongst developing countries, by supporting technology transfers and by helping the establishment of regionally integrated markets.



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Study: EU biogas production grew 13.6% in 2006, holds large potential

According to a newly published Energy Barometer on Biogas, the renewable fuel has a large potential in Europe and is growing rapidly amid increasing concerns about oil and gas prices and climate change. In 2006, around 5.35 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe) was produced in the EU, an increase of 13.6% compared to 2005. The production of electricity from biogas grew by 28.9% over the same period. Germany remains European leader and noted a 55.9% growth in 2006 in electricity generated from the renewable gas.


The Biogas Barometer [*.pdf] was produced by a group of renewable energy groups led by Observ’ER as part of the EurObserv’ER projects which monitor the progress of renewable energy development within the Union. It looks at production figures per country, per type of biogas production method and application, and at current policies. The report further shows how European biogas R&D, technologies and services are finding new export opportunities.

Biogas has seen a growing interest in the EU because of the fuel's excellent greenhouse gas emissions and energy balance (earlier post and here). Moreover, biogas is a generic term hiding a wide diversity in both the methods in which it is produced and the ways in which it is valorised. This abundance of potential feedstocks and applications makes it a highly versatile biofuel.

Versatility

Biogas can be either collected directly in landfill sites or produced using digesters. It is possible to transform any type of organic waste into biogas. Effluents are treated in sewage purification plants and household waste in solid waste methanisation units. Slurries, agricultural waste and energy crops can be methanised either in small agricultural units or in large-scale centralised codigestion units (collective units that treat different types of waste associated with a considerable share of slurry).

Valorisation methods vary according to the types of deposit, to methane quality and richness, as well as to market outlets in proximity and policies that are implemented. Rubbish dump biogas, the most abundant deposit, is mainly used to produce electricity that is injected into the power grid. In the case of sewage purification plants (urban and industrial), small agricultural units, centralised co-digestion or solid waste units, CHP (combined heat and power) type production is most often used. In CHP configurations, the production of heat directly contributes to the methanisation process (it serves to keep the digester at a constant temperature). Large size units are also capable of supplying a heat network in the case where commercial outlets exist.

Once it has been purified, biogas can also be used in the form of fuels for vehicles running on natural gas (CNG) (earlier post) or be reinjected into the natural gas distribution network, when this is so permitted by national legislation. Both applications are being undertaken in several member states. Use of the green gas in fuel cells is a recent development (more here).

Production keeps growing
According to the Biogas Barometer, primary energy production of biogas in the EU markedly increased once again in 2006, with 13.6% growth with respect to 2005, i.e. a total production of 5.346 mtoe. This last figure only includes production that is intended to be valorised, and it therefore does not include biogas that is burned in flare stacks.

When it comes to the share of different feedstocks, 'rubbish dump' deposit represents the largest share of production (3.116mtoe). On the other hand, methanisation biogas is no longer represented for the most part by sewage purification plants, the "other biogas" category has moved out in front, in particular thanks to the development of on-farm biogas applications. In terms of final energy, gross electricity production is growing very strongly (+ 28.9%, for a total of 17.3TWh), notably thanks to a strong increase in the electricity produced in CHP systems:
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For the first time, this CHP production exceeds the amount of electricity produced alone. Concerning valorisation in the form of heat, it would be proper to point out that satisfactory monitoring is much more difficult in this case. Statistics generally evaluate the volumes of heat sold, without taking the quantities of heat that could be self-consumed into consideration. According to the Barometer figures, the use of biogas heat progressed very little, + 1% to 631,1 ktoe in 2006:

German success story
As can be seen on the EU-wide map (click to enlarge), in Germany, the current development of primary energy from biogas is principally made thanks to the production of electricity of small farm methanisation units functioning in combined heat and power (CHP) process. At the end of 2006, approximately 3,500 biogas units were in service. Additional biogas capacity amounted to 550 MWe for the year 2006 alone with about 50 new plants being installed each month.

These investments impact sector electricity production, which, according to the AGEEStat (statistical organisation of the Ministry of the Environment), increased by 55.9% in 2006 (+ 2.6 TWh with respect to 2005) to reach a total of 7.3 TWh.

This success is explained by the application of a particularly attractive feed-in tariff for small biomass electricity production plants (including agricultural biogas). The feed-in tariff, which decreases by 1.5% per year beginning on January 1st 2005, is established in the following manner:
  • 17.16 c€/kWh in 2006 (16.99 c€/kWh in 2007) up to 150 kW;
  • 15.63 c€/kWh (15.45 c€/kWh in 2007) up to 500 kW;
  • 12.64 c€/kWh (12.51 c€/kWh in 2007) up to 5 MW;
  • 8.15 c€/kWh (8.03 c€/kWh in 2007) up to 20 MW.
The gas from rubbish dumps and from sewage purification plants has a specific feed-in tariff of 7.44 c€/kWh in 2006 (7.33 c€/kWh in 2007) for units up to 500 kW and of 6.45 c€/kWh (6.35 c€/kWh in 2007) for units up to 5 MW.

These feed-in tariffs are increased by 2 c€/kWh if the electricity is produced from an innovative technology, like a fuel cell or a gas turbine.

Biogas, a national priority in Sweden
Valorisation of biogas is clearly one of the country’s energy priorities in Sweden. This sector is not only devoted to the production of electricity (54 GWh in 2006) and heat (20.7ktoe), but also to the production of vehicle fuel as well as for reinjection into the natural gas network (replacing the equivalent of 1.8 million m3 of natural gas per year).

There are numerous incentive systems in Sweden promoting the use of biogas. This energy is not subject to the tax on CO2. Moreover, the central government grants subventions to the local governments and to business firms that invest in solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in which biogas plays a role.

There is also a sizeable tax exemption for purchasing vehicles that run on biogas fuel. The production of electricity is supported by a green certificates mechanism.

Codigestion is Danish specialty
In Denmark, the production of biogas comes for the most part from 20 codigestion units and small-scale farm production units (60%), that are far in front of the biogas produced from rubbish dumps (15%) and sewage purification plants (25%). CHP plant biogas has been particularly developed in Denmark and is at the origin of practically all of the biogas electricity produced in the country. Denmark is, moreover, the fourth biggest EU country in terms of biogas if primary energy production per inhabitant, with 17.4 toe per 1 000 inhabitants, is taken into consideration.

ROCs favourable to biogas in UK
In the absence of official figures from the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), EurObserv’ER has estimated the United Kingdom production level at 1.696 mtoe. This figure would signify that the UK has given up its first place position in terms of primary energy production to Germany. However, the UK holds on as leader if we consider the indicator of primary energy production per inhabitant, with 28.1 toe per 1 000 habitants in the UK vs. 23.3 toe per 1000 inhabitants for Germany.

Growth of primary energy production in the UK is essentially due to an increase in production of electricity from rubbish dump gas. This type of biogas has particularly benefited from the green certificates system, the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs).

The ROC system requires electricity suppliers to increase the renewable electricity share in total production each year.

The obligation level of 6.7% for the 2006/2007 period is going to be progressively increased to 15.4% in 2015. In this system, suppliers can either directly produce the renewable origin electricity themselves or buy certificates from renewable electricity producers. When the objective is not reached, the supplier must pay a fine of £32.33 (€47.22) for each MWh that’s missing. The electricity resulting from biogas from methanisation, rubbish dumps and sewage purification plants is eligible for this system.

3% growth in Italy
According to the first estimates made by the ENEA (Agency for Energy, the Environment and New Technologies), the production of primary energy and of electricity from biogas increased by 3% in Italy in 2006. Biogas plants using vegetal and organic waste are recognised by the GRTN (Italian power grid manager) as being able to participate in the national green certificates system. In the Italian system, producers and importers use these certificates to prove that they have fulfilled their legal obligations to supply a percentage of renewable origin electricity (2.7% in 2006).

The mean price of a green certificate in Italy has been constantly increasing and it reached 13.91 c€/kWh in 2006.

Spain favours electricity production
Electrical power plants running on biomass and biogas benefit from a specific scheme of the Royal Decree 436/2004, which establishes the feed-in tariffs for the different renewable sectors. Operators have a choice between selling their electricity directly on the market or selling it to an electricity distribution company. In this last case, the price set per kWh corresponds to 90% of the reference price of electricity determined each year by Royal Decree.

This tariff is applicable for a period of twenty years and then decreases to 80% of the reference price after this time. If the operators choose the market, they benefit from the market price plus a bonus representing 40% of the set reference price. Furthermore, another subsidy representing 10% of the reference price is added on to their remuneration.

This system has been relatively effective for biogas electricity production with, according to the IDEA (Institute for Energy Diversification and Saving), an 8.8% increase in 2006 with respect to the year before.

Feed-in tariff increase in France
The year 2006 marked a turning point in development of the biogas sector in France with the July publication of new sufficiently attractive tariffs to develop all the different biogas applications. This new tariff is set at between 7.5 and 9 c€/kWh, depending on installation capacity, to which a bonus for energy efficiency going up to 3 c€/kWh is added as well as a 2 c€/kWh prime for methanisation, and this for a period of fifteen years. This tariff should notably make it possible to create an agricultural methanisation sector (on-farm biogas and collective codigestion plants) which is practically inexistent in France today. At the same time, measures have been begun to simplify and make more fluid the technical conditions of access to the power grid.

Biogas electricity production, which only increased by 3.7% in 2006 (501 GWh), according to the Ministry of Industry, should thus rise in power during the next few years.


Industrialists reinforcing themselves
In the space of fifteen years, the waste methanisation industry has structured itself and succeeded in becoming a full-fledged economic sector. Several types of specific methanisation processes have been developed to respond to all of the different demands making up this expanding market.

Supported by their particularly active domestic market, the German actors are naturally among the most present in Europe. Inescapable on the household waste methanisation market, Linde KCA has a complete offer allowing it to propose effective solutions to treat wet or dry organic waste. The firm has already equipped 40 sites and had €160 million turnover in 2006. Several new installations are announced for 2007.

The biggest are planned for in Beijing (73 000 tons of waste treated per year) and in Lille (France), with a 62 000 ton capacity. The French site has the particularity of proposing, in parallel, valorisation in the form of heat (connection to a heat network) and in the form of fuel to supply a part of the municipal bus fleet.

Competitor of the German firm, the Valorga French company has been able over the years to develop and disseminate its house process (which has the same name as the company does).

Today a subsidiary of the Spanish group Urbaser, (the number one waste collection operator in Spain), Valorga has to its credit 19 site references using its technology, with capacities ranging between 10 000 and 300 000 tons of waste treated per year. The company knows how to market itself beyond the European border, since two production sites have been announced for China in 2007. The first, in Shanghai, shall treat 227 500 tons of raw household waste and 41 000 tons of fermentable waste each year. The second in Beijing, of a smaller size, shall convert 105 000 tons of household waste into energy.

Another type of waste and another actor: the German firm Schmack Biogas AG has known how to take very good advantage of the development of agricultural biogas sites, above all on its domestic market. Its turnover went from €34 million to €90 million between 2005 and 2006. Impressive growth that has naturally been reflected in terms of its number of employees as well, which went from 112 to 297 during the same period. Up until now, nearly 180 units have been equipped by Schmack, which is trying more and more to move beyond its borders by concentrating on Italy as well as on the American market.

There are numerous other companies that have developed methanisation processes adapted to all sorts of waste. By way of example, we can cite the Kompogas Swiss company, which equipped 4 new sites in Germany in 2006, the Belgian OWS which has announced a work site in Otaka (Japan) for 2007 and the BTA German company which, armed with its 25 references, is attacking the Japanese market on the Komoro site (70 000 tons of waste per year).

Efforts too late for White paper targets
The current dynamism of the overall sector is favourable overall. Some suggested that over the long term (2020-2030) the European biogas sector can replace all imports of natural gas from Russia (earlier post).

The real efforts made over the last few years by several member countries (United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Luxembourg and Sweden) are particularly eloquent with respect to the new sites created. Each of these countries has developed its own channel of valorisation in structuring cutting-edge technologies and industries.

These examples of success and their support mechanisms were able to inspire countries like France. France has in turn set up the conditions necessary for rapid development of its different sectors and notably of its agricultural biogas deposit that has remained practically unexploited up until now.

Within the EU, the potential of production of biogas from this last deposit is doubtless the most considerable. Agricultural biogas also has the advantage of being of excellent quality (rich in methane and poor in pollutants), which facilitates its valorisation.

It is also worth pointing out that the significant increase in the price of conventional energies associated with legislations that are more favourable to the biogas sector, have now opened up the way for energy production based in part on energy crops (notably corn) and not only on waste alone.

The important thing is to correctly balance the economic interests of these solutions with the energy constraints posed by these productions (for example, water consumption).

However, all these efforts, come too late to meet the ambitious objectives that the EU White Paper set in 1997 (15 mtoe in 2010). The Biogas Barometer forecasts, based on the answers received from experts to our questionnaires and on the growth of past years, that a quantity of around 8.6 mtoe can be expected. A low figure that would represent 5.7% of the target of the Biomass Action Plan of the European Commission, which esteems that an energy consumption of all biomass of 150 Mtoe in 2010 is realisable.


The Biogas Barometer was produced by Observ’ER within the framework of the
"EurObserv’ER" project, which unites Observ’ER, Eurec Agency, Erec, Jozef Stefan Institute and Eufores. The programme is financially supported by France's environment agency ADEME and by the Intelligent Energy program of the EU.

References:
EurObserv’ER: Baromètre biogaz - Biogas barometer [*.pdf]- May 2007.

The EurObserv'ER Barometer website.

European Commission: White Paper for a Community Strategy and Action Plan - Energy for the Future: Renewable Sources of Energy [*.pdf] - November 26, 1997.

EurActiv: Biogas has promising future in EU, study shows - July 24, 2007.



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Nigerian NGO calls for ethanol cooperation with Cuba

A Lagos-based non-governmental organisation has urged stakeholders in the country's manufacturing sector to take advantage of the pledge by Cuba to transfer ethanol production technology to Nigeria.

Recenly Cuba's Ambassador to Nigeria, Elio Olivia, said his sugar producing country was ready to share its expertise in the production of varieties of sugar cane, and alternative sources of energy, in particular biofuels, with Nigeria (earlier post).

According to Ben Adighibe, Executive Secretary of the New Ethnic Organization, "the offer by Cuba would help localize ethanol production technology and also boost trade relations between the two countries".

Adighibe said, in addition to boosting trade relations, local production of ethanol, which is sourced from sugar, would save the country huge foreign exchange which it expends every year on imported ethanol and petroleum products. He also said that the recent crisis in the industry involving alleged importation and sale of denatured ethanol by some Nigerian companies, to producers of domestic end users which posed serious dangers to public health, would not arise.

Adighibe, whose NGO was at the forefront of a campaign to stop sharp practices in the industry, said in a statement that government should take more than a passive interest in the industry, given its strategic importance to the economy:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The lid was blown up originally by Nigeria's National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) when it published a report in which Director-General, Prof. Dora Akunyili, announced that her Agency was investigating complaints about certain companies involved in alleged sharp practices in the ethanol import trade.

Reacting to the on-going dispute on the alleged diversion of denatured ethanol for the production of domestic consumables, Adighibe said concessions given to importers of denatured ethanol who pay only 5 per cent duties rather than 20 per cent for the pure brand, gave rise to the fraudulent practice in the industry.

It has been widely alleged that some importers, in a bid to enjoy lower tariff (5 per cent), deliberately poison the pure ethanol at source, to qualify for the concession, which government intent for the industrial end users who claim to bring in denatured ethanol as input in the manufacturing of pesticides, perfume etc.
An estimated amount of 300 billion naira (€1.7/$2.3 billion) is being lost in unpaid duties to fraudulent importers who look advantage of government import concessions on denatured ethanol.

Cuba's offer to assist Nigeria came despite Fidel Castro's recent criticisms of biofuels, in particular of fuels made from crops like corn. Cuba itself is investing heavily in the production of sugar cane based ethanol (previous post).

References:
Vanguar: Nigeria, Cuba collaborate on ethanol production - July 24, 2007.

Biopact: Cuba to assist Nigeria with ethanol production, agriculture - June 26, 2007

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Sweden invests $143 million in Indonesian biofuel sector, companies obliged to have own plantations

Sweden BioEnergy will invest 1.3 trillion rupiah (€103.7/$143.5 million) in biofuel development in Indonesia by establishing a Jatropha curcas plantation on 100,000 hectares of land in the province of East Nusa Tenggara (map, click to enlarge) in the near future, an official has said. The announcement comes at a time that the Indonesian government is considering requiring biodiesel producers in the country to have their own dedicated plantations in order not to disrupt supplies of vegetable oils to the food industry.

The Swedish company which for the first time dealt with the biofuel sector in Indonesia last March, would also set up a biofuel processing plant in East Nusa Tenggara with a capacity of 350,000 tons per year, Al Hilal Hamdi, chairman of the Indonesian National Biofuel Development Team, said.

The chairman announced that 400 billion rupiah in investment would be used to procure 100,000 ha of land and the remaining 900 billion rupiah for funding the construction of the biofuel processing plant.

Sweden BioEnergy is one of 50 private companies interested in building the biofuel sector in Indonesia at a total cost of US$17 billion, or 150 trillion rupiah in the next few years.

Sweden is a staunch advocate of international biofuel trade and the largest importer of the fuels in Europe. At the recent landmark International Conference on Biofuels organised by the EU, the country's trade minister Sten Tolgfors also announced his government will work towards removing trade barriers to make sure European citizens get access to affordable fuels, whereas producers in the South can benefit from selling on the world's largest market (earlier post). Tolgfors also visited Indonesia and identified the country as a major player in such a global trade (more here).

Indonesia has been attracting a massive amount of foreign investment in the biofuel sector, so much so that it forced the government to put a moratorium on new private sector initiatives in order to allow for more time to develop appropriate policies.
The private companies' commitment to develop the biofuel sector in Indonesia is beyond our expectations. - Indonesian Biofuel Development national team chairman Al Hilal Hamdi
Last January, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) signed a $5.5 billion deal on the development of the biofuel sector in Indonesia, announcing the establishment of 3 processing plants in Kalimantan (earlier post). Other private companies like Genting Biofuel under a cooperation with Sinopec invested $3 billion while Indomal poured $1 billion in a biofuel development project in Indonesia.

Hilal also said that British Petroleum Plc which has a cooperation with D1 Oils Plc, planned to build a biofuel producing plantation on 1 million hectares of land in India, Indonesia and Africa (more here). The largest part of this 1 million ha plantation will be built in Indonesia:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In the beginning, the BBN national team's secretary Evita Legowo said BP Plc had already explored a possibility of opening 100,000 ha of land for biofuel development in NTT, Papua, and Kalimantan.

The BP Plc and D1 Oil cooperation was part of an investment set at $160 million to develop the biofuel sector in India, South Africa and Southeast Asia, she said.

The government has predicted that the country`s biofuel development project until 2010 will cost 200 trillion rupiah, including 13 to 15 trillion allocated by the government and the rest by the private sector.

New plantations
Meanwhile, the Indonesian government is considering requiring biofuel industries to have their own plantations in order not to disrupt vegetable oil supplies to the food industry, Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono said. This will be especially the case for crude palm oil (CPO), prices of which have increased considerably.
The development of downstream industry is inseparable from its upstream industry, meaning that biofuel firms must have their own oil palm plantations - Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono
Speaking during a national seminar on CPO for food or energy, the Agriculture Minister said the government was mulling the obligation for biofuel industries to keep CPO supplies in check.

At least upstream palm oil industries would continue to grow in the future to create more jobs, he said.

Asked about the low production of biofuel as an alternative energy source in the country, he said it was caused by its higher prices, the more so because the government still subsidized fuel oil prices.

"The government is also formulating a policy to boost the usage of biofuel now that under a presidential decree biofuel is expected to contribute to 5 percent of the national energy needs by 2025," he said.

Under the government`s biofuel promotion plan, Indonesia will increase the use of biofuel to 5.29 billion by 2010 and 9.84 billion liters by 2015.

Evita H. Legowo, an assistant to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources said recently state oil and gas firm Pertamina - the only biofuel distributor in the country - was finding it hard to raise biofuel sales because of its higher prices.

The minister, quoting data from the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), said many foreign biofuel firms had applied for permits to operate in the country.

"We are also figuring out what kind of decision suitable to boost the use of biofuel. Do we need to provide biofuel subsidy or do we need to divert fuel oil subsidy to biofuel subsidy. To that end, we need inputs from stakeholders," he said. He said the country would need an estimated 12 million tons of CPO a year to produce oil palm-based biofuel.

References
Antara: Sweden invests Rp1.3 trln in Indonesian biofuel sector - July 24, 2007.

Antara: Biofuel firms may be obliged to have own oil palm plantations - July 24, 2007


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Monday, July 23, 2007

Nanoparticle additive makes PLA based bioplastics stronger

Bioplastics and biopolymers come in many forms: some are extremely strong and easily outperform their petroleum-based counterparts, while others are beginning to find many everyday applications but could use some added strength. An example of the former would be Rilsan, made from castor oil, the latter include polymers based on polylactic acid (PLA) obtained from sugars or starch (schematic, click to enlarge). PLA is used in bioplastic bags, bottles and packaging, which tend to tear more easily than sturdy polyethylene based variants.

Rohm and Haas, a specialty chemicals company, now announces it has developed a new additive based on nanoparticles that improves the performance of such PLA-based forms of packaging. PARALOID BPM-500 is an impact modifier that broadens the usability of bioplastics by making them stronger.

The packaging industry’s move toward PLA resin has been hampered by unmodified PLA being somewhat weaker and more brittle than traditional materials. Previous attempts to strengthen PLA packaging have sacrificed transparency in their efforts. Rohm and Haas’ new PLA additive toughens PLA packaging while maintaining clarity, thereby fulfilling a key industry need.

Using dispersible nanoparticles that do not scatter light, PARALOID BPM-500 allows for the production of PLA packaging material that exhibits less than 10% haze at 5% loading, a significant advantage compared to other additives on the market. Combining this visual transparency with the stronger impact and tear-resistance achieved with PARALOID BPM-500 creates an improved consumer experience and an eco-friendly product. In addition, PARALOID BPM-500 complies with food contact requirements in Europe and with room temperature food contact requirements in the United States:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Suzanne Carroll, Rohm and Haas Packaging Marketing Manager, says that it is important for additive technology to be in-step with bioplastic material development so that necessary performance criteria will be achieved. Rohm and Haas is committed to environmentally enhanced technology and PARALOID BPM-500 provides the needed solution to allow broader use of PLA packaging.

The announcement comes at a time when new bioplastics are being developed regularly. Recently, both Dow with Brazilian partner Crystalsev, and Braskem started working on creating polyethylene from sugarcane ethanol. We now have bio-based alternatives for all major petroleum-based plastics.

Nanotechnology promises to bring major progress into the biomaterials industry, with additives that enhance the properties of the product playing a key role. Examples of this are nano-particle enhanced biofuels and plant based industrial oils (earlier post) as well as processes that utilize biomass waste-streams more efficiently (more here).

The EU's SustainPack project is aimed at developing the next generation of 'interactive' and sustainable plastics and packaging, based on the integration of bio- and nano-materials (previous post).

Scientists are also developing soft nanomaterials such as new surfactants, molecular gels, liquid crystals, self-assembled organic nanotubes, twisted fibers and helices from bio-based raw materials (more here).

Schematic: polylactide production process: lactic acid can be produced from starch or sugar containing crops. But the most common raw material is glucose which is widely available in large amounts at competitive prices. Glucose is converted to sodium lactate by fermentation. After purification, lactic acid is recovered as a diluted solution which is concentrated up to 90%. PLA is then produced by ring opening polymerisation of the dilactide. The monomer is available from lactic acid by polycondensation up to a limited molecular weight followed by depolymerization. Credit: Uhde Inventa-Fischer.

References:
Rohm and Haas: Rohm and Haas Launches the "Clear Solution" In Impact Modifiers for Strengthening Sustainable Packaging - July 17, 2007.

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African Union, Brazil and UNIDO organise first High-Level Conference on Biofuels in Africa

The idea of a 'biopact' based on Africa's vast biofuels potential has penetrated the circles of African decision-makers. The African Union (AU), the Government of Brazil and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) announce they will jointly organise the First High-Level Conference on Biofuels in Africa, to take place from July 30 to August 1 at the seat of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

There has been growing interest in liquid biofuels in Africa, mainly as a response to the significant rise and volatility of oil prices. Energy being so vital to development, so far, a number of countries in Africa, the majority of whom are net oil importers, have taken various steps to develop biofuels so as to ensure stable, secure and environmentally friendly energy supplies. In parallel to these developments on liquid biofuels, experiences in other developing country regions also shows that other biofuels technologies like gasification and biogas are increasingly becoming reliable, cost effective and ready for the market. As such, biofuels are fast becoming one of the most dynamic and rapidly changing sectors of the African and global energy economy.

Africa's energy needs are enormous and largely go unmet. Given the continent’s conducive climates, vast unused land resources, the availability of labour and the urgent need for rural development, there is no doubt that biofuels have the potential to provide the much-needed energy for industrialisation and poverty reduction efforts. Other potential benefits of developing biofuels in Africa include: reducing the cost of importing oil, increasing access to modern energy services, revitalizing rural economies and creating jobs.

According to researchers working for IEA Bioenergy, Africa could produce more than 400 Exajoules of exportable and sustainably produced biofuels by 2050, without impacting the food, fuel and fiber needs of its rapidly growing populations. This is roughly the amount of energy currently used by the entire world from all sources (oil, gas, nuclear, renewables) (earlier post). But to materialize this technical potential, and to analyse and minimize the potential social and environmental impacts of a large biofuels industry, the continent needs international, technical and normative support.

For this reason, the AU, the Brazilian Government and the UNIDO hold their conference under the title "Sustainable Biofuels Development in Africa: Opportunities and Challenges" [programme, *.pdf], as part of the global framework of the Strategic Plan 2004-2007 drawn up by the Commission of the African Union, which foresees, amongst other things, the creation of continent-wide strategies and policies on renewable energy.

More specifically, the seminar has the following key objectives:
  • brief policy makers, the private sector, regional institutions and other key stakeholders on the potential and risks and trade-offs of developing biofuels in Africa;
  • facilitate sharing of experiences in developing biofuels among countries in Africa and between Africa and Brazil and other countries and regions;
  • explore the potential and challenges to the dissemination of priority biofuels technologies; and
  • consult key stakeholders in developing a program of action for sustainable biofuels development
The 8th Assembly of the African Union Commission meeting in Addis Ababa in January 2007, endorsing the measures adopted by the African Ministers in charge of Hydrocarbons (oil and gas) at their 1st Conference held in Cairo on 14 December 2006, requested the African Union Commission to elaborate policies and strategies for the development of clean, new and renewable energies, particularly biofuels, as an alternative solution to hydrocarbons, in response to the rise in oil prices which has extremely adverse effects on the economies of African countries (some of them are now spending twice as much on importing oil, than on health care). Biofuels can mitigate these disastrous impacts:
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The High-Level Seminar will now focus on making sure that all stakeholders - policy makers, government, the private sector and civil society - will be capable to make informed decisions to kickstart a large-scale biofuels industry in Africa.

The Seminar will also serve as a forum for the exchange of knowledge on the potential of biofuels on the continent and on the social, environmental and technological complexities that go with the establishment of a biofuels sector. It will look at the barriers that must be removed to ensure smooth technology transfers.

The Brazilian government will share its experience and knowledge on strategies to implement large scale biofuel production. Its presence at the Seminar is in line with its commitment to establish powerful South-South relations based on an entirely new, sustainable and post-oil energy paradigm that promises to help eradicate poverty and brings unprecedented chances for development in the poorest countries. Likewise, and Indian delegation will do the same and share knowledge on its rapidly evolving biofuels sector with African governments.

Finally, the High-Level Seminar will create a framework for African decision makers, where biofuel policies and strategies can be discussed.

The challenges of kickstarting a viable biofuels industry are high, but the potential rewards are unprecedented. If African decision makers succeed in developing smart policies, biofuels promise to lift millions of the world's poorest out of poverty, develop rural areas, boost energy security, reduce food insecurity and cut reliance on expensive oil imports which are so detrimental to Africa's development.

Translated by Jonas Van Den Berg and Laurens Rademakers, Biopact, cc, 2007.

References:
Médiaterre Afrique: Premier Séminaire de Haut Niveau sur les Biocarburants en Afrique - July 25, 2007.

African Union: First High-Level Biofuels Seminar in Africa - July 23, 2007.

UNIDO: Conference programme [*.pdf].

UNIDO: Biofuels Strategy: Sustainable Industrial Conversion and Productive Uses of Biofuels - Preliminary Draft [*.pdf].


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Hawaii crop scientists test jatropha, oil palm


Soil and crop scientists are undertaking a range of research projects in Hawaii aimed at testing the viability of growing biofuel and bioenergy crops like Jatropha curcas and the African oil palm. The University of Hawaii's Poamoho Experimental Farm is test-growing the jatropha tree for a basic set of agronomic studies. University of Hawaii researchers planted a first crop of jatropha in January and they are already starting to bear fruit. A similar plot at the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center in Kunia has also flowered and borne fruit.

Jatropha trees and their oil-rich seeds are seen as a promising biofuel feedstock that could be grown by rural communities for the production of biodiesel, bio-power and organic fertilizer.

Jatropha curcas quick facts:
  • Shrub native to Latin America, Caribbean, subtropical and tropical zones
  • Starts yielding after second year, matures at year 5, lives for up to 50 years
  • Seeds used to produce biodiesel in India, Myanmar, across Africa
  • Oil content of seeds: 40-60 percent; non-edible oil
  • Potential oil production: 1200 liters per hectare/300 gallons per acre
  • Agronomists & plant biologists working on breeding improved varieties
  • Grows in a variety of conditions and soils, can withstand high temperatures and drought
  • Can help combat erosion, soil degradation, nutrient depletion
  • Generates stream of useful byproducts: seedcake (organic fertilizer, potential for animal feed), glycerin, pharmaceuticals, latex
  • No mechanised harvest yet, intensive manual labor
Mike Poteet, a crop scientist with the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, believes the crop has the potential to be part of a new type of 'energy agriculture' in Hawaii that could revitalize the agricultural sector across the state. Poteet wrote a report last year that suggested Hawaii could grow enough biodiesel crops to reduce imported diesel by 20 percent - perhaps 150 million gallons (567 million liters) a year, or around 10,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. But he says the effort is still in its infancy.

Plans are underway to build two large biodiesel plants in Hawaii. A Seattle-based company, Imperium Renewables Inc., wants to build a $90 million processing plant at Barbers Point to produce 100 million gallons (378 million liters) of biodiesel a year, whereas Maui Electric Co. and BlueEarth Maui Biodiesel have also proposed a $61 million refinery on the Valley Isle to produce up to 120 million gallons (454 million liters) a year of biodiesel to produce electricity. Both companies would start operations using imported vegetable oil. But both also have said they would eventually like to use local crops:
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According to Richard Ogoshi, a crop researcher at the College of Tropical Agriculture at UH-Manoa, the market is there but agricultural efforts are needed to meet the demand. But as long as farmers don't know whether a crop like jatropha is commercially viable, they won't risk growing it.

It's hoped the research going on now will determine what crops might work best in different growing conditions in Hawaii and what plants will give farmers the best return.

Oil palm
Bill Steiner, dean of UH-Hilo's College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources, is leading a UH-Hilo effort to begin research in growing different types of oil palm on 120 acres of land in Pauuilo on the Hamakua coast.

The oil palm is an extremely profitable crop in South-East Asia, but in Hawaii it has never been planted on a large scale. For this reason, Steiner says that until somebody shows it's feasible, it's going to be difficult for a landowner to put his money into it.

So far, Steiner has about $45,000 and is seeking more funding. UH-Manoa and the
Hawaii Agriculture Research Center are sharing a $150,000 state Department of Agriculture grant. UH-Manoa also received another $250,000 from the Legislature this year, said Goro Uehara, a soil scientist with the College of Tropical Agriculture.

Marginal land
UH-Manoa is starting with jatropha because it has already been grown successfully elsewhere. It also can be grown on marginal agricultural land, Uehara said. "We have to find crops that will grow in underutilized areas. We don't want to compete with prime agriculture," Uehara said.

UH has identified plots of land on different islands with varying conditions to plant jatropha and other potential fuel test crops including kukui, castor bean, soy bean, sugar, sugar beet and sweet potato. Scientists are also looking at haole koa and some varieties of grass that could be used with cellulose-technology to make fuel.

Byproducts
Another part of the research is looking at byproducts from fuel plants into other salable products, such as animal feed or pharmaceutical products, Poteet said. The sap of the jatropha is similar to latex and that may also have some value, he added. "It could mean new jobs and new businesses," Steiner said. "It could be very interesting for Hawaii besides leading us down a path towards more energy independence."

The researchers emphasized that they are three to six years away from being able to determine the economic viability of fuel crops in Hawaii and the best ways to grow them. "We are in the infant stages," Poteet said. "There's a very great potential for this industry but we've got to have the support to get things off the ground."

Large picture: Richard Ogoshi, systems agronomist at the University of Hawaii's Poamoho Experimental Farm, looks over a test plot of jatropha trees. Credit: Richard Walker.

References:
Honolulu Star Bulletin: Tree holds promise for future of biofuel - July 23, 2007.

Checkbiotech: Tree holds promise for future of biofuel - July 32, 2007.

University of Hawaii system.


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Indian group builds biomass power plants, lists on BSE, sells carbon credits

Shares of Hyderabad-based power, infrastructure and biofuels company Suryachakra Power Corporation Limited (Suryachakra), were listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) today. The company came out with an IPO of 34 million equity shares of 10 rupiah each at a price of 20 rupiah per share aggregating 680 million rupiah (€12.2/US$16.9m). Shares ended the first day of trade at 22.35 rupiah, a premium of 13% to the issue price.

Suryachakra at present operates a 20MW power plant in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and has several large-scale liquid biofuel projects underway in India and Indonesia.

Biomass power
Its three wholly-owned subsidiaries are setting up two biomass-based power plants of 9.8MW each in Chhatisgarh and two other biomass power plants of 10MW each in the state of Maharashtra.

All the biomass-based power plants, being set up by its subsidiaries, are eligible for carbon credits under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism. The subsidiaries have entered into a CDM emission reductions purchase agreement with Ecoinvest Carbon SA, a Geneva-based subsidiary of Bunge, on July 13, 2007, for the sale of the carbon credits.

The company's two subsidiaries - Lahari Power and Steels Limited and South Asian Agro Industries Limited - have also signed two memoranda on July 17, with Tata Power Trading Company Limited for a supply of 9.8MW power for a period of five years effective October 2007:
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Liquid biofuels
Via its subsidiary Aasrit Agro Products Private Limited, the group currently establishes a biodiesel Project in the Visakhapatnam Special Economic Zone, in Andhra Pradesh, India. The project involves a 200,000 tonnes per annum biodiesel processing plant. The biodiesel project is being established in the VSEZ with assured supplies of palm oil from leading international players, technology collaboration from global leader in biofuels processing technology and assured products offtake agreements. In the future, a Jatropha plantation is proposed to be developed to ensure sustained supply of feedstock economically.

Via PT Suryachakra Biofuels, it is aslo setting up an integrated biofuels project at Dumai Special Economic Zone in Riau Province of Indonesia. The proposed biodiesel processing capacity is 250,000 tonnes per annum and will be backward integrated with 250,000 tonnes per annum processing capacity of Crude Palm Oil.

Further supplies to the Crude Palm Oil mill will be sourced from captive plantation of oil palm to be developed in about 40,000 hectares in phases. The integrated biofuels project is strategically being located in the Dumai port city.

The project is being established with assured supplies of palm oil from leading international players, technology collaboration from global leader in biofuels processing technology and assured products offtake agreements with globally leading trading firms.

References:
Economic Times: Suryachakra Power shares up 13% - July 23, 2007.

The Hindu: Suryachakra Power lists at Rs 30 - July 23, 2007.

Suryachakra Power: overview of biofuels activities.


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VeraSun Energy to acquire 330 million gallons of new capacity

VeraSun Energy Corporation, one of America's largest ethanol producers, today announced plans to acquire three ethanol plants with a combined annual production capacity of 330 million gallons per year (MMGY) from ASAlliances Biofuels, LLC for US$725/€525 million. The acquisition will boost the company's total capacity to one billion gallons (3.785 billion liters) by the end of next year. This comes down to an output of around 45,600 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

The three facilities are each expected to operate at 110 MMGY and are located in Albion, Nebraska, Bloomingburg, Ohio, and Linden, Indiana. The acquisition should become final in 30 to 45 days and is subject to customary closing conditions.

The facilities will provide VeraSun with immediate production capacity and revenue. The Linden facility will begin startup operations this month, followed by Albion in the fourth quarter and Bloomingburg by the end of first quarter 2008.
Reaching one billion gallons of annual production will be a benchmark for VeraSun and represents a maturing of the renewable fuels industry. We believe scale and efficiency are important as we continue to focus on reducing production and distribution costs and increasing value for our shareholders, customers and plant communities. - Don Endres, VeraSun Chairman and CEO
VeraSun currently has 340MMGY of production capacity through its operating facilities in Aurora, South Dakota and Fort Dodge and Charles City, Iowa. The company has another 330MMGY of production presently under construction and development in Hartley, Iowa, Welcome, Minnesota, and Reynolds, Indiana. The facilities being acquired are sister facilities to VeraSun’s current fleet as they are all designed by ICM and built by Fagen, Inc.

The company is funding the acquisition through $200 million of equity, $250 million of cash and $275 million in project financing. The acquisition is expected to be accretive to earnings and free cash flow within the first 12 months without accounting for potential synergies:
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Current ASAlliances plant employees will become VeraSun employees at the conclusion of the sale. Morgan Stanley & Co. Incorporated is serving as the financial adviser, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP is acting as legal counsel for VeraSun on this transaction.

VeraSun's portfolio of biofuel plants currently looks as follows:

Operating Facilities
VeraSun Aurora (SD) – 120MMGY (2003 Startup)
VeraSun Fort Dodge (IA) – 110MMGY (2005 Startup)
VeraSun Charles City (IA) – 110MMGY (2007 Startup)
Current Operating Capacity – 340MMGY

Facilities Under Construction or Development
VeraSun Hartley (IA) – 110MMGY (Q1 2008 Startup)
VeraSun Welcome (MN) – 110MMGY (Q1 2008 Startup)
VeraSun Reynolds (IN) – 110MMGY (Q4 2008 Startup)
Capacity Under Construction and Development – 330MMGY

Facilities From Acquisition
Linden (IN) – 110MMGY (Q3 2007 Startup)
Albion (NE) – 110MMGY (Q4 2007 Startup)
Bloomingburg (OH) – 110MMGY (Q1 2008 Startup)
Capacity Under Acquisition – 330MMGY

Totals
5 Plants, 560MMGY by end of 2007
8 Plants, 890MMGY by end of Q1 2008
9 Plants, One Billion Gallons of Annual Production Capacity by end of 2008


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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Researchers surprised by plant genome variability: adaptation to environment stronger effect than anticipated

Faster growth, darker leaves, a different way of branching - wild varieties of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana are often substantially different from the laboratory strain of this small mustard plant, a favorite of many plant biologists. Which detailed differences distinguish the genomes of strains from the polar circle or the subtropics, from America, Africa or Asia has been investigated for the first time by research teams from Tübingen, Germany, and California led by Detlef Weigel from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. The results were surprising: the extent of the genetic differences far exceeds the expectations for such a streamlined genome, as the scientists write in this week’s edition of Science magazine.

The findings [*abstract] challenge the idea that the genome of a single indivual of a species captures the essence of the species as a whole. There is no such thing as one genome. Instead there is great variability across strains. The genetic variability found for Arabidopsis appears to reflect adaptation to local circumstances. It is likely that such variable genes allow plants to withstand dry or wet, hot or cold conditions, or make use of short and long growing seasons.

This makes the discovery important for plant breeders, because such genome analyses of unprecedented details will allow for a much better understanding of local adaptation to ever changing environments. And indeed, Weigel is already collaborating with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines to apply the methods and experience gathered with Arabidopsis to twenty different rice varieties.
By extending these types of studies to other species we hope to help breeders to produce varieties that are optimally adapted to rapidly changing environmental conditions. - Detlef Weigel, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology
To track down the variation in the genome of the different Arabidopsis strains, the researchers compared the genetic material of 19 wild strains with that of the genome of the lab strain, which was sequenced in the year 2000. Using a very elaborate procedure, they examined every one of the roughly 120 million building blocks of the genome. For their molecular sleuthing they used almost one billion specially designed DNA probes. Illustrating the extent of the project, Weigel says that all together, these probes would have seven times the length of human genome. The data were evaluated with several specially designed statistical methods, including a variant of machine learning:
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The result of this painstaking analysis: on average, every 180th DNA building block is variable. And about four percent of the reference genome either looks very different in the wild varieties, or cannot be found at all. Almost every tenth gene was so defective that it could not fulfill its normal function anymore.

Results such as these raise fundamental questions. For one, they qualify the value of the model genomes sequenced so far.
There isn’t such a thing as the genome of a species. The insight that the DNA sequence of a single individual is by far not sufficient to understand the genetic potential of a species also fuels current efforts in human genetics. - Detlef Weigel, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology
Still, it is surprising that Arabidopsis has such a plastic genome. In contrast to the genome of humans or many crop plants such as corn, that of Arabidopsis is very much streamlined, and its size is less than a twentieth of that of humans or corn—even though it has about the same number of genes. In contrast to these other genomes, there are few repeats or seemingly irrelevant filler sequences. That even in a minimal genome every tenth gene is dispensable, has been a great surprise, admits Weigel.

Detailed analyses showed that genes for basic cellular functions such as protein production or gene regulation rarely suffer knockout hits. Genes that are important for the interaction with other organisms, on the other hand, such as those responsible for defense against pathogens or infections, are much more variable than the average gene. The genetic variability appears to reflect adaptation of local circumstances, says Weigel. It is likely that such variable genes allow plants to withstand dry or wet, hot or cold conditions, or make use of short and long growing seasons. The findings have obvious implication for plant breeders, who can now use the knowledge to breed crops much more adapted to local environmental circumstances.

How environment and genome interact is also the goal of new, even more powerful methods. While the technology used so far can only identify genes that have changed or are lost relative to the reference genome, direct sequencing of the genome of wild strains will allow the detection of new genes. The plan is to decipher the genomes of at least 1001 Arabidopsis varieties. A new instrument, with which the entire genome of a plant can be read in just a few days, is already available. Still missing are the computational algorithms to interpret the anticipated flood of data.

Researchers from Tübingen who contributed to the study include Richard Clark, Stephan Ossowski and Norman Warthmann from the MPI for Developmental Biology, Georg Zeller and Gunnar Rätsch from the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory of the Max Planck Society, Gabriele Schweikert and Bernhard Schölkopf from the MPI for Biological Cybernetics, and Daniel Huson from the University Tübingen. Researchers from California who contributed to this study include Huaming Chen, Paul Shinn and Joseph Ecker from the Salk Institute, Christopher Toomajian, Tina Hu and Magnus Nordborg from the University of Southern California, and Glenn Fu, David Hinds and Kelly Frazer from Perlegen Sciences, Inc.

Picture: Arabidopsis plants from different geographical origins differ in many traits. Courtesy: Max Planck Society.

References:
Richard M. Clark, Gabriele Schweikert, Christopher Toomajian, Stephan Ossowski, Georg Zeller, Paul Shinn, Norman Whartmann, Tina T. Hu, Glenn Fu, David A. Hinds, Huaming Chen, Kelly A. Frazer, Daniel H. Huson, Bernhard Schölkopf, Magnus Nordborg, Gunnar Rätsch, Joseph R. Ecker, Detlef Weigel: "Common Sequence Polymorphisms Shaping Genetic Diversity in Arabidopsis thaliana" [*abstract], Science, July 20, 2007

Max Planck Society: One species, many genomes: Adaptation to the environment has a stronger effect on the genome than anticipated [*.pdf] - July 19, 2007.


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World sugar prices keep falling, despite ethanol boom


Weekly prices for unrefined sugar, NYBOT (click to enlarge). Source: Commodity Charts & Quotes.
In May, ethanol prices in Brazil recorded their lowest level in 2 years, making the government consider an increase in the blending rate by 2% (from 23 to 25%). At the same time, crude oil prices have risen to new records. The advantage of sugar cane based ethanol has never been this great (earlier post). Meanwhile India's millions of sugar farmers are in crisis, battling falling prices because of an unprecedented output - production is likely to reach a record 28 million tonnes in the year to September 2007. And 30 million tons is projected for the 2008 season. The Indian sugar industry - the world's second-largest producer - demanded the government to implement a switch to ethanol, in order to slow down the price drops (earlier post).

Now, sugar futures in New York, where the product is traded in its raw form, fell on speculation that India may offer to sell unrefined supplies of the sweetener, adding to the global surplus.

Investors and traders expect India to issue a tender on July 23 for up to 265,000 metric tons of raw sugar, according to a report published on July 19 by BNP Paribas Commodity Futures Inc. in New York. Until recently, India only exported white, refined sugar. The record crop in India may lead the country to double total exports, a minister said last week.

Sugar futures for October delivery fell 0.02 cent, or 0.2 percent, to 10.30 cents a pound at 12:43 p.m. (July 20) on the New York Board of Trade. Futures are down 33 percent in the past year on rising global production.

Indian sugar output may rise 7 percent to a record 30 million tons in the year ending Sept. 30, 2008, from an estimated 28 million tons this year, according to the National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories Ltd., a producer group. India may double exports to 3 million tons in 2008, Akilesh Prasad Singh, the minister for agriculture, consumer affairs, food and public distribution, said on July 9 [entry ends here].
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